Limits of the Escalation

KALAMAZOO, February, 1969

Why did we participate in the worker-student action committees ? What did we think was happening when the general strike began ? What was the basis for what we thought ?

Students had ceased to accept the state and academic authorities within the universities. Regularly controlled and managed by the state, and in this sense "state property," the universities were transformed into "social" institutions, where the students determined what was to be done, what was to be discussed, who was to make the decisions and the rules.

At numerous general assemblies, people expressed the awareness that, if the universities were to remain in the hands of people who gathered there, workers had to take control of the factories. In fact, people went to factories to say to workers : "We've taken over the universities. For this to be permanent, you have to take over the factories." Some workers began to "imitate" the student movement independently. At Renault, for example, the strike began before the "students" went there. This is also true of Sud-Aviation. At several other factories, young workers who had joined the students on the barricades began to follow the "example" of the universities by calling for strikes and eventual take-overs of the factories by their workers.

Yet this is where the first critique has to be made. We had not, in fact, understood the full significance of the "model" of the university occupations, and consequently our perspective of "general assemblies in the factories" did not have the basis we thought it had.

What had happened in the universities was that students, workers and others had taken over state buildings, and assumed for themselves the power formerly wielded by the state. However, they did not "reorganize" or "restructure" the university; they did not substitute a "student-run" university for the state-run university; they did not reform the capitalist university. The occupations did not establish "student-power" in the universities; students did not elect or appoint a new administration, this time a student-bureaucracy, to run the university in the place of the state bureaucracy. In fact, the occupants of the universities rejected the traditional student bureaucracy, the student union ( National Union of French Students--UNEF ).

What is even more important is that "students" did not "take over" the universities. At the Sorbonne, at Censier, at Nanterre and elsewhere, the university was proclaimed social property; the occupied buildings became exuniversities. The buildings were opened to the entire society -- to students, teachers, workers -- to anyone who wanted to come in. Furthermore, the ex-universities were run by their occupants, whether or not they were students, workers, townspeople. At Censier, in fact, the majority of the occupants were not "students." This socialization was accompanied by a break-down of the division of labor, the division between "intellectuals" and "workers." In other words, the occupation represented an abolition of the university as a specialized institution restricted to a special layer of society ( students ). The ex-university becomes socialized, public, open to everyone.

The general assemblies in the universities were instances of self-organization by the people inside of a specific building, whatever their former specializations. They were not instances of self-organization by students over "their own" affairs.

However, this is as far as the "escalation" went. When the people who organized their activities inside an occupied university went to "the workers," either on the barricades, or in the factories, and when they said to "the workers" : "YOU should take over YOUR factories," they showed a complete lack of awareness about what they were already doing in the ex-universities.

In the ex-universities, the division between "students" and "workers" was abolished in action, in the daily practice of the occupants; there were no special "student tasks" and "worker tasks." However, the action went further than the consciousness. By going to "the workers" people saw the workers as a specialized sector of society, they accepted the division of labor.

The escalation had gone as far as the formation of general assemblies of sections of the population inside the occupied universities. The occupants organized their own activities.

However, the people who "socialized" the universities did not see the factories as SOCIAL means of production; they did not see that these factories have not been created by the workers employed there, but by generations of working people. All they did see, since this is visible on the surface, is that the capitalists do not do the producing but the workers. But this is an illusion. Renault, for example, is not in any sense the "product" of the workers employed at Renault; it's the product of generations of people ( not merely in France ) including miners, machine producers, food producers, researchers, engineers. To think that the Renault auto plants "belong" to the people who work there today is an illusion. Yet this was the fiction accepted by people who had rejected specialization and "property" in the occupied universities.

The "revolutionaries," who had transformed universities into public places and consequently no one's property, were not aware of the SOCIAL character of the factories. What they contested was the "subject" who controlled the property, the "owner." The conception of the "revolutionaries" was that "Renault workers should run the factories instead of the state bureaucrats; Citroën workers should run Citroën instead of the capitalist owners." In other words, private and state property are to be transformed to group property : Citroën is to become the property of the workers employed at Citroën. And since this "corporation" of workers does not exist in a vacuum, it has to establish machinery to relate to other, "external" corporations of workers. Consequently they have to set up an administration, a bureaucracy, which "represents" the workers of a particular plant. One element of this corporatist conception was affected by the "model" of the occupied universities. Just as the student union was rejected as the "spokesman" for the university occupants, the traditional union ( the General Confederation of Labor ) was rejected as the "spokesman" for the incorporated workers : "the workers should not be represented by the CGT; they should be represented by themselves," namely by a new, democratically elected bureaucracy.

Thus even in the perspectives of the university occupants, the factories were not to be socialized. Thus "General Assemblies" inside the factories did not have the same meaning as in the universities. The factories were to become group property, like Yugoslav enterprises. Such enterprises are not socially controlled; they are run by bureaucracies inside each enterprise.

By fighting the Gaullist police in the streets, people contested the legitimacy of this power over their lives. By occupying a building like Censier, they contested the legitimacy of the bureaucrats who controlled this "public institution." People occupied Censier whether or not they had ever been students there; no one acted as if Censier "belonged" to those students who were enrolled for courses there. But the same logic was not applied to the factories. People did not go to Renault or Citroën saying, "This doesn't belong to the capitalist, or to the state, and it doesn't belong to the CGT either ! Furthermore it doesn't belong to a new bureaucracy that someone might set up. It belongs to the people, which includes us. Renault is ours. And we're going in. First of all we want to see what it is, and then we'll figure out what to do with it."

In May it was certainly possible for ten thousand people to go to Renault and occupy it. More than ten thousand did in fact demonstrate their "solidarity" with the workers of Renault, and they walked from the center of Paris to the Renault plant at Billancourt. But the dominant idea was that the workers who are employed there have to decide what happens inside the factory. The demonstrators accepted the most important regularity of capitalist life : they accepted property, they merely wanted a new owner.

( A small number of workers from a chemical plant did go to Censier to invite "outsiders" into the factory, but their invitation did not have consequences, and was even opposed by "revolutionary" arguments like "We would be substituting ourselves for the workers." )

The idea that "the means of production belong to the working people" was translated to mean that the workers own the particular factory they work in. This is an extreme vulgarization. Such an interpretation would mean that the particular activity to which the wage struggle condemned someone in capitalist society is the activity to which they will be condemned when the society is transformed. What if someone who works in the auto plant wants to paint, farm, fly or do research rather than assembly line car production ? A revolution would mean that workers, at that moment, would go all over the society, and it is doubtful that many of them would return to the particular car factory that capitalism had condemned them to work in.

The "idea" of workers' councils does not necessarily imply that workers will be tied to a particular factory for life, in the sense that the workers "belong" to the factory that "belongs" to them. What the "idea" suggests is that all the workers will rule social production. However, in May and June there were no actions in this direction; the statements addressed to workers explicitly said : "Workers, form general assemblies in YOUR factories; form workers' councils in YOUR factories," which is an automatic transplantation of the Yugoslav model.

The student movement was impregnated with historical examples of "workers' councils" in Russia, Germany, Spain, Hungary and Yugoslavia. A tactic by which workers in one factory can effectively oppose the factory bureaucracy was transformed into a "revolutionary program." The "workers' councils" were to be created inside the factories by the workers themselves, the same way that the occupations had been carried out by the students.

However, what happened on May 15 was that a "wildcat strike" broke out, namely an event which is within the bounds of activity that takes place in capitalist society. The wildcat strike degenerated into a bureaucratic strike because of the failure of the revolutionary movement to "escalate" or overflow into the factories. The militants did not have perspectives for passing from a wildcat strike, from a rebellion against authority, to the liberation of daily life. In a few days the strike was taken over by the union bureaucracy, and in this sense was not even a successful wildcat strike. This missing step between the student struggle and the general strike effectively closed this route of escalation : the student movement did not "escalate" into a movement within the factories.

Perhaps, after the outbreak of the strike, there still remained possibilities for escalation, possibilities for a further step in the direction of transforming daily life. People were still fighting. With ten million workers on strike and thousands of people on the streets every day, the escalation might have taken the form of a systematic attempt to destroy the state apparatus. The orientation of the movement was anti-statist; the state ran the universities and its power had been abolished. There had been an "escalation" until May 10. Students communicated their intentions to other students in the street. And their intentions were very specific. On May 10 they were determined to take back their university. They had the support of the majority of students, of young workers who joined them in the street, and of the people in the neighborhood ( the Latin Quarter ). However, after May 10, a series of small demonstrations "reproduce" the demonstration and struggle of May 10, and no longer constitute "escalations" of the struggle. Thousands of people participate in these actions; there are constant confrontations with the police. But there is no longer the determination to take control over an essential activity.

For example, the state power, which did not dare send its army or police anywhere between May 16 and May 20, was using a small group of cops to broadcast the news all over France. The state broadcast its "news" from a tower with a few cops in front of it, and everyone in France knew that lies were being broadcast ( for example, that workers were striking for their union demands, and that students were anxious to take their tests ).

The people in the universities and in the streets, as well as the striking workers, really needed to communicate with the rest of the population, merely to describe what they had done and were doing. Yet in this situation, where the "relation of forces" was on the side of the population and not the state ( in the view of both sides ), when "revolutionaries" thought they had already won and the government thought it had already gone under -- in this situation, between May 16 and May 20, all that happened about the lack of information was that people whispered about it in the street, and some vaguely said "we should take over the national radio station."

On May 22, a group of mini-bureaucrats who saw their chance to organize "The Revolutionary Party," called "official delegates" of all action committees to a meeting which was to plan the next "grand" demonstration. The nature of the demonstration had, in fact, been planned before the meeting took place; the delegates were gathered together to help the bureaucrats think up "slogans". And what had been decided was that, on May 24, another show of force was to take place, in front of a railroad station; it had also been decided that the only difference between this demonstration and earlier ones would be the slogans. But there was no longer a need to show those in power that "we are strong." In other words, this was not to be a transformation of reality, of the activities of daily life; it was to be a transformation of slogans ( namely words, and ultimately, if the words "caught on," then the ideas in people's heads would be transformed ). The mini-bureaucrats decided not to engage in anything so adventuristic as the occupation of the radio station by sections of the population who were fed up with the ideological repression of the radio. "We'll be outmanned and we'll be shot" reasoned the mini-bureaucrats, who were so used to thinking in terms of "revolutionary groups" of twenty or less members confronting the whole police of France that they thought the same way in May. The other "idea" was : "We can't protect all those people from the police," an idea which unveils the way these "leaders" think of "their sheep." The only activity that interested the mini-bureaucrats was to police demonstrators by appointing themselves to the "service of order," keeping people on the sidewalks, or on the streets, telling demonstrators what to do, dispersing them. So that this route to potential escalation was closed on May 24.