What happened in May ? Was it a spontaneous and incoherent uprising of various sections of the population, or a coherent step on the part of a determined revolutionary movement ? Was it a blind eruption of accumulated complaints and dissatisfactions, or a conscious attempt to overthrow a social order ? Did the student movement which set off the explosion have a coherent revolutionary theory, and a strategy based on the theory ? If it had a theory, to what extent was it communicated to the action committees, to the workers ?
There were unquestionably elements of revolutionary theory at the origin of the movement. This is illustrated by the fact that students in Nanterre began a struggle against the American war in Vietnam and were able to relate the activities of their own university to this war. This does not mean that the "majority" of the fighting students explicitly grasped the connection between their own daily lives and the war in Vietnam. Most students undoubtedly grasped the war as a distant struggle between David and Goliath, they grasped it as a spectacle in which they had sympathy for one side. But a small number of students acted on a much more profound understanding the moment they engaged themselves in a struggle to unveil the connection between the university, the capitalist system, and the war in Vietnam. To these students the war in Vietnam ceased to be an "issue" and became an integral part of their own daily lives.
A background in Marxist theory undoubtedly plays a large role in giving European students some tools with which to grasp the connection between their studies and the war. However, in addition to this background in critical theory, through the mass media European students are given a daily view of the grossest spectacle in the modern world : the United States.
Increasingly sophisticated means of communication reveal to spectators all over the world a spectacle of two hundred million people who passively observe "their own boys" killing, torturing, maiming human beings daily, a spectacle of torture which is "scientifically" prepared by teams of the most highly trained "scientists" in the world, a spectacle of an immense "educational system" devoted to a frantic research for methods of controlling, manipulating, maiming and killing human beings.
The arrogant insistence with which the "American way of life" advertises itself puts the European student on guard against the methods through which "Americans" are produced. The Nanterre student is able to see himself being transformed into an indifferent servant of a military machine. Students become aware that the activities for which they are being trained are intimately related to the Vietnam war. They begin to grasp connections between the bureaucratic content of their "education," the activities performed by the bureaucrats, and the killing of Vietnamese. And when students begin to engage in "exposures" of their professors and classes, they try to make explicit, transparent, the connection between the "objectivity" of this or that "social science," and the activity which is a consequence of the practice of this "objective knowledge"; they begin to unveil what this system of knowledge does.
Students who begin to struggle against the war in Vietnam by exposing the content of lectures at the University of Nanterre show that they have two crucial insights : they perceive that their own activities at Nanterre are a part of an inter-connected system of activities which encompass the entire world society; and they perceive that their own practical activities at Nanterre have repercussions on the entire world society.
Even without a background in Marxist theory, students can see themselves manipulated daily by bureaucrats whose personal achievements and quality of life are not overly impressive : professors, university administrators, state functionaries. The students see themselves being used for purposes defined by the bureaucrats; they see themselves being trained to perform activities which others consider necessary. They also perceive, though more vaguely, that the activities for which they're being prepared are related to the spectacle they watch on TV and in the press. These perceptions become "a theory" when the connections between the activities of the students, the professors, the bureaucrats, are made explicit. Revolutionary theory brings to light the connections between the students' own daily activities and the society of obedient TV-watching robots. The "revolutionary" mini-groups obviously contribute to this elucidation of daily life, since each group's "treasure" is one or another of Marx's numerous insights into the links between the daily activities of people under capitalism.
This exposure of the connections between the separate activities of capitalist daily life, this "research through action" which was undertaken by students at Nanterre, was only partially communicated to other sectors of the population, if at all. As soon as students perceived the connection between their passivity in the classroom and the brainwashing that took place in the university, they also perceived the action they had to undertake to put an end to the brainwashing : they had a strategy, and it consisted of breaking down the passivity of students.
When the Nanterre militants began to expose the activities they were being trained to perform, they developed only half a strategy for their own liberation. When they questioned the legitimacy of state and academic bureaucrats to define the content and direction of their lives, they developed only those tactics which would take power away from the academic bureaucrats. They know that stopping the academic bureaucracy is not enough : they know they have to stop activities in the rest of society. However, their strategy ends where it begins : with the university. Through a disruption of classes, through exposures of professors and occupations of auditoriums, they are able to stop the activities of the capitalist university. They know that their own choices are limited because of the activities of workers; they know that their own liberation means that they take what previous generations built, and they use these instruments to define the content and direction of their lives with other living individuals in collective projects.
They know that the power of the bureaucrats depends on the students' acceptance of this power. They also know that the power of the state, of capitalists and of union bureaucrats depends on workers' acceptance of this power. But the workers' acceptance also has to be explained, since that partly depends on the indifference of the rest of the population. Thus the workers regard it as a normal part of life to sell their labor, to alienate their creative activity, and the rest of the population accepts this.
In the university, students begin to put the separate power of the bureaucrats to an end. But when they go to the factories, they are unable to define the steps which are necessary to break the dependence and helplessness of the workers. This reflects a lack of theory. They go to the workers as if the workers did in fact represent a separate group which must define its own separate strategy of liberation. Furthermore, although the student militants are able to connect their own powerlessness with the sheepishness of the workers who indifferently produce the instruments of their own repression, they make this connection only in concepts and are unable to translate it to reality; they are unable to define a strategy which is related to this perception. In the university they are conscious of themselves as living agents, they are conscious of their own power to transform their daily lives. They are able to set themselves a collective objective, and are able to move towards it. But they are unable to extend this power beyond the university. Once outside, they are suddenly helpless spectators who expect something to rise out of the "working class"; they cease to define themselves as members of society who have the power to transform it. They suddenly accept the legitimacy of the power of separate groups over the social instruments for their own liberation.