The Ideology and Practice of Contestation seen through Recent Events in France

Richard Gombin

The new forms of social conflict in France and the ideologies underlying them pose some formidable questions to the historian and the sociologist of the workers' movement. Those which particularly interest us deals on the one hand, with the existence of anarchist ideas and concepts within the sum total of ideological utterances in May and June 1968 and, on the other with the libertarian character' of the methods of contestation which have appeared in France during recent years. I have deliberately confined myself to the wide notion of the 'practice of contestation' precisely because it goes beyond the phenomenon of the wildcat strike or the unrest in the universities and corresponds to a more general concept which has not as yet been monopolized by any theory. 'Generalized contestation' does not claim to be a definitive sociological category. On the contrary, it is a provisional portmanteau word which will take a more definite shape once we emerge from the chiaroscuro of impressionistic criticism and philosophical reflection.

To reply to the question: what part do anarchist theory and practices play in the generalized contestation in contemporary France does not mean that we are going to leave the quicksands of conjecture for the solid ground of scientific truths. Only a tentative answer can as yet be put forward and it can do no more than introduce a series of other questions which try to situate in the long term the phenomenon of contemporary revolt. In other words, there is need for continuous research if we are to find out whether the chain of events which have taken place in France marks the end of an epoch of social struggle or' on the contrary, if it has inaugurated and heralded a new era. In the first case; what we have called 'generalized contestation', would prove to have been only the last flare up of a dying ember, the last occasion on which the opposition could permit itself the luxury of a wildcat strike, of disorganizing the universities, of a major political crisis, before the rationality, the planning, in short the effective programming of French society (as of all technologically advanced countries) put an end to the cacophony, 'out of place' in the second half of the 20th century. The second hypothesis sees in the events, not the death-rattle of a dying man, but the wailing of a newborn infant. In this case, what has happened is a definitive milestone in a phase of conflict which was held in a vicious circle. During that phase, attempts to bring about emancipation from bureaucratic capitalism spent themselves in a futile reformist struggle in the name of a socialism just as bureaucratic: and totalitarian and which offered the workers simply a choice between private or state capitalism. In this last instance, the extent and the characteristics of the Contemporary social struggle marked the breaking of a link in this vicious circle, the opening of a breach through which revolutionary energy could pour out in the future.

It goes without saying that I shall naturally not attempt to decide between these two alternatives. But in attempting to delimit the problem of the libertarian trend in the May 1968 revolt, some preliminary answers will emerge which I do not feel authorized to elaborate in this study. I will try first of all to describe this trend at file level of its ideological expression and then at the level of social, economic and university conflicts.


It is customary to speak of anarchism when describing the events which shook France for almost sis weeks in 1968. [1] But one must specify what kind of anarchism one means and what form it took. Every social upheaval, from the good-tempered strike to the revolutionary insurrection brings in its wake an ensemble of libertarian actions and attitudes, for every upheaval is felt by the crowd to be an extraordinary moment, a sudden and welcome break in the daily routine: a rigid timetable is replaced by leisure and all becomes play. But generally this collective relaxation, this social catharsis is contained within precise limits and is only a secondary aspect of the revolutionary process.

This being said, it must be stressed that during the events of May-June 1968, this particular aspect passed beyond the stage of contingency.

In reality the main factor in the immense psychological drama was collective decompression. All facets of daily life were attacked, contested) destructuralized. The political aspect which, in a revolution of the 'classic' type dominates and overshadows all the others, was present only in the background, in the corridors in which moved the habitual actors of the parliamentary opposition.[2] Here probably lay the movement's originality, in regard to what was new when compared to revolutionary orthodoxy. In the absence of a unique revolutionary leadership, of a predominant ideological framework, ideas flowed freely, and everyone joined in the debate. As in all which have missed the mark, that of 1968 was rich in ideas, in possibilities and in plans.

Nevertheless, among the political themes which had some coherence and impact, three groups can be singled out: on the one hand, the programmes and tactics of the classic bodies of the Left (FGDS, PCF, CGT, PSU, etc.); on the other, the ideologies of small groups descended from Marxism-Leninism (Trotskyists, Maoists, dissident communists); and lastly, the ideas put forward by the anti-authoritarian groups (essentially the Movement, of 22 March and the Situationist International).

It is dearly among the anti-authoritarian groups that the greatest libertarian impetus was to be found But these groups were far from having a monopoly of all the contestarian ideas current at the time; nine-tenths of the ideas expressed were put forward by people who belonged to no organization; by the anonymous crowds who were the true protagonists of the May revolt. But it is also true to say that the ideologies of the anti-authoritarian groups contained, in a concentrated and directly political form, the greater part of the images and clichés, memories and archetypes met with in May-June 1968.

Here one comes to the second question: what kind of anarchism was it, to what ideal-type of libertarian thought must one refer when speaking of influences or affiliations? At the outset, the problem can be situated by stating that anarchism as an organised movement played no part in the development of events [3]; anarchist groups in the true sense played a negligible part in the spreading of their doctrine or in the succession of strikes. One can even go further and say that the doctrine of anarchism slumbered in contemporary France, respected and supported only by a few elderly writers and journalists. In other words, the French anarchist movement supplied very little of the driving force in the events as an organization (unlike the FAI and the CNT in the Spanish civil War) nor was it a direct source of inspiration (as were the Russian anarchists in relation to the Makhnovshchina).

Yet some writers have tried to discern in the historical antecedents of pre-1914 anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism a paternity rendered even more obvious to them in that they see the May revolt as the repetition of an historic archetype, the very model of workers' action, whose avatars have extended throughout the whole history of the French workers' movement [4] These writers are right to connect contemporary phenomena with the workers' tradition, peculiar to France. One must remember that the French proletariat, even its vanguard, was not influenced by Marxist socialism until fairly late; that Proudhon left an indelible mark on a working class which still stood on the threshold of the industrial age; and finally that the desire for equality and the tradition of direct democracy were already present among the sans-culottes.[5]

But if this ancestry is over-emphasized, if one relies too much on historicism, there is a risk that among the rich crop of the May events one may pick out only those elements which can be linked to the nation's past. There is also a risk that other elements, which are even mote interesting in that they are quite new and original will be passed over in silence.[6] It would therefore be methodologically wrong to regard anarchism as a precise historical phenomenon or even as a homogeneous mass of ideas and actions: the whole mutualist and federalist tradition of Proudhon was lacking in May 1963 as was his stress on private property and permanent moral values, not to mention the 're-appropriation' of private property and the individualist tradition of Stirner.

If, on the other hand, we accept that anarchism is such a vast heterogeneous and moving mass, a magma of social ideas and aspirations, above all, a tradition of implacable opposition to partisan authoritarianism, to the omnipotence of the state, then we can discover some of these elements in the present movement, but mediated through a number of stages. For it is the entire lesson of the revolutionary experience of the 20th century which has been learnt; pure anarchism can only claim apart in it, possibly only a minor one. It is thus difficult to extract from this rich and composite seam the pure gold of Anarchy. By studying some of the basic themes put forward by the anti-authoritarian groups we shall discover at what point anarchist ideas are the kernel around which gravitate such Contradictory doctrines as Luxemburgism, the socialism of the workers' councils, surrealism, situationism, etc.

Among the most general themes shared by the anti-authoritarian grouplets, we find, in the first place, the same radical criticism of bolshevism, both Leninist and Stalinist.[7] There is criticism of the very nature of the October revolution, a political revolution above all, brought about by a small minority of professional militants who imposed their own tactics and aims on the masses. Here there are of course echoes of the duel between Bakunin and Marx, of the attack by the Jura collectivists on any political taking over of the revolutionary process, on any support of the stat; even in the provisional form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the analysis of modern bureaucracy by the May contestarians does not conceal its Trotskyist origin. They adopted the point of view that the revolution had been 'taken over' by the apparat, which had replaced the working class not only in the Soviet Union, but in China and in Cuba.[8] The end result of this criticism led the 'spontaneists' to some extremely unorthodox conclusions: that the bolshevik revolution was a counter-revolution and that Russian socialism is in reality state capitalism. This enabled them to criticize en bloc both the East and the West where the various socio-political regimes are seen as so many varieties of the same species: bureaucratic capitalism. The situationists in particular, sharpened this global and many-sided critique. They pushed to great lengths the theoretical analysis of modern society and their criticism of daily life goes much deeper than the global contestation of the 22 March Movement which is primarily a tactical concept enabling activist minorities to attack by word and deed the numerous 'forms of repression' of bourgeois society.

For the situationists, the bureaucratic system of industrial society has considerably increased the sum total of the exploitation and repression of man in comparison with competitive capitalism and the liberal i9th-century state. The tremendous development of science and technology has led to the individual being completely taken over by the system; the individual is no more than a commodity, a reified object, placed on show, and manipulated by the specialists in cultural repression: artists, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, sociologists and 'experts' of all kinds.[9] To fight against a 'spectacular' society, in which everything is treated as a commodity and in which creative energy spends itself in the fabrication of pseudo-needs, one must attack on all fronts simultaneously; not only on the economic and social fronts but also (and above all) on the cultural one: the virulent attacks on professors, on the system of education, and on university administration, at Nanterre in 1967-68 sprang from this way of thinking. The groups of enrages in Nanterre, Strasbourg, Nantes and Bordeaux were inspired by the situationist analysis and were determined 'to organize Chaos' on the campus. What must be noticed, however, in the situationist 'system' is the part played by surrealist themes. If it is true that the negation of all authority, of any hierarchy is an old anarchist precept,[10] the sharpening of the criticism of culture and art, the desire to change life while at the same time transforming the world is undoubtedly surrealist, if not dadaist. [11] This is not surprising once one realizes that the Situationist International was in its beginning at the confluence of surrealism, lettrisme, anarchism and the ideology of the workers' councils. [12] This is a heavy legacy for the situationists to bear; their form of expression suffers from it, a certain hermetism obscures an already very concentrated thought. But from the moment when the International adopted the revolutionary idea in its entirety, that is when it passed beyond cultural criticism alone, all these elements coalesced around criticism of the capitalist system. The fundamental idea remaining from all these influences is that changes in relations of production are not enough in themselves to liberate mankind completely. To be completely emancipated, the individual must be the creator of his own existence and he must shake off the shackles which hinder him. One of these shackles is work. Of course, it is the alienated and alienating work of bureaucratic societies - but it is also every paid, structured and directed activity which is meant. Although one can find in Kropotkin, for example, the exaltation of 'free activity', the idea that work is oppressive in itself is not really an anarchist one. In Proudhon, and also in the anarchosyndicalists one finds indeed the conception of redemptive work which, rediscovering its true nature in the workshop of the independent craftsman, acquires the dimension of a moral value.[13] On the other hand, the inscription which was written up on the walls of Paris, 'Never work' comes in a direct line from the surrealist slogans of the 1920s.[14] Here are to be found affiliations of a different kind which inspire the situationists with the image of a liberated society as a playful society in which play replaces compulsory activity. The situationists proclaim, in the writings of Raoul Vaneigem, that only the orientation towards play is a guarantee against alienating work. Vaneigem foretells that the future society, the society founded on the love of free play, will be characterized by the refusal to be led, to make sacrifices, to play a part, and by the freedom of genuine self-expression.[15] Here the situationists move far away from the positivism and scientific rationalism of the 19th century by which the Marxist and the anarchist traditions were equally influenced. An appeal to the primitive-irrational traces its roots a long way back into the past, even to the tradition of feudal chivalry.[16]

The situationists, although in many ways they are the heirs of surrealism, dadaism and some millenarian trends, rejoin the modem currents in post-Marxism and even go further in their quasi-Marcusian analyses of alienation in the capitalist-bureaucratic society, which is the purely political aspect of their ideas. There was at one time in their thinking a meeting and a juxtaposition, rather than a fusion, between the criticism of bourgeois culture, modem culture in general (which they had made since their foundation in 1957) and political theory. In analysing situationist writing, one has the impression that one fine day the militants chanced upon the political dimension of contestation. On that day they decided that 'the revolution must be reinvented' and adopted the programme of workers' councils, forgetting or ignoring the fact that others before them had criticized the weaknesses in the Soviet revolution. [17] In declaring that revolutionary organization must be formed on the model of the workers' councils and must be accompanied by criticism of everyday life, the situationists were unaware that they were taking up again the methods of analysis used by the anarchists, especially in relation to the Russian revolution. These methods of analysis, transmitted through Voline, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker and others, were later incorporated into the doctrine of the German-Dutch ultra Left, in Gorter, Pannekoek, Otto Ruble. In particular, the idea that the collectivization of the means of production leads to state-capitalism was strongly defended by the leaders of the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union-Deutschlands (AAUD) from 1924 onwards. It was in order not to be swallowed up by the Comintern that the movement made itself felt through the Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei-Deutschlands (KAPD), the AAUD and later the AAUD-E (unitary) in Germany. If then the slogan of workers' councils, both among the situationists and among the militants of the 22 March Movement, shows a degree of anarchist influence, yet it is only an indirect influence acting through the German ultra Left, through the workers' councils' movement, in short mediated by Marxist leftism.

In the same way, the slogan of self-management, propagated by the French leftists, in spite of its Proudhonian and Bakuninist echoes, is a part, as they interpret it, of the tradition of the 20th century, a tradition which is in itself ambiguous, in that it lies on the frontier between liberal socialism and authoritarian Marxism.[18]

Furthermore, the intensive propaganda of the and-authoritarian view in favour of self-management is in itself marked by a certain ambiguity. Unconsciously, the militants are aware of this; they are reluctant to supply any doctrinal reference, and they refuse to explain whether what they mean by self-management is the setting up of autonomous groups of politically conscious workers or an abstract notion which would have only the negative virtue of excluding all other solutions, especially Leninist ones. This is one authentic aspect of leftism which rejects all proposed solutions as illusory. Anarchist or pseudo-anarchist themes are used as outlets, as alibis rather than as an ideology.

Another aspect of anti-authoritarian leftism which lies even closet to the meeting point of anarchism and Marxist socialism is its immense confidence in the creative capacities of the masses. This gives rise to denunciations of the unions, which are relegated, together with the political parties, to the ranks of reformist instruments and to the demand that the workers should be organized on their work sites, outside the unions or party networks. [19] Strikers must be led not only to- create spontaneously their own forms of organization and struggle (factory Committees, action committees, strike committees), but also to overcome the stultifying obstacle presented by the traditional organizations which, according to the leftists, try to 'profit from' the movement of contestation and to channel it along the lines of reform. Hence the common concern of the militants of the 22 March and of the Situationist International, to objectivize the revolutionary process, to make the May strikers realize that 'they are making the revolution', [20] but not by 'injecting' this realization 'from the outside' as Lenin recommended, but by revealing it, as a catalyst, 'from within'. The entire tactics of the anti-authoritarian groups and all their efforts, too, to take their place in the revolutionary current of the 20th century stem from this need.


if one leaves on one side the purely 'university' phase of the movement of contestation, the action of the situationists was very limited indeed and mainly 'for the record'. In spite of their concern with the coherence of theory and praxis, they could not overcome the handicap of their small numbers: This was the price they paid for a much too elitist conception of their organization.

By contrast, the Movement of 22 March was at the centre of events. Its victories on the Nanterre campus and the militant fervour of its members made it the most active and popular of the groups. [21] Unlike the situationists, the militants of the 22 March invented their tactics, slogans and propaganda themes as they went along. The enrage's and the situationists had the chance to put their ideas into practice in the first Committee of Occupation of the Sorbonne (14-17 May 1968) which, under their influence, set up total direct democracy in the Sorbonne, notably by calling a general assembly of the occupants every evening and submitting an exhaustive report on their activities for its approval. On 17 May, faced by the assembly's utter indiffernce the committee resigned and was replaced by another one that did not go in for daily consultation but, surrounded by a host of 'technical' committees, was managed by a coalition of authoritarian groups. The militants of the 22 March refused to be integrated in organizational structures, however in-formal or democratic. They wanted to exist only as an informal group, perpetually inventing forms of action. They remained, there-fore, one of those 'agitating minorities' of which Sorel has spoken, which aimed at inspiring revolutionary movement without any preconceived theory. The group would meet only to decide on a course of action and only those in favour of these actions would attend. The actions were to be exemplary, that is, they were to have the character of political escalation designed to induce others to follow their example. The occupation of one of the administrative buildings or the defence of a factory against the police were considered exemplary in that they enabled the movement to complete a stage in the battle against the capitalist state. Direct action of this kind went further than any proposed by the syndicalists in that it was inspired by the example of urban guerrilla warfare and the tactics of systematic provocation. [22] The rejection of all organization and co-ordination with other groups arose out of a doctrinaire attachment to spontaneity and its advantages; meanwhile, the activism of the militants, their ceaseless propaganda among the strikers, was designed to create precisely that same spontaneity among the workers. The situationists, for their part, after the setback to direct democracy in the Sorbonne, organized themselves in the Committee for the Continuation of Occupations (CMDO) and revived total democracy within their own small committee. This committee also attempted to spread the doctrine of workers' councils verbally and in writing. [23]

Very soon, the need for some system, some coherence, even if only in tactical matters, arose. The discussions went beyond the temporary framework of the general strike - in a way they still continue. We must therefore ask what affiliations and influences these groups themselves acknowledge. This subjective aspect can help to reveal how effective was the part which anarchism has played in their ideas and tactics.

A first examination is not encouraging: in their desire to break with all systems, to set up pragmatic and spontaneous creation, the anti-authoritarian groups repudiate all the origins attributed to them. The members of the Situationist International go so far as to deny that they have any ideology at all since any ideology is alienating. They reject both spontaneity and anarchism. [24] But a more careful examination of their writings reveals explicit references to Bakunin (on authoritarian structures and bureaucracy); some recognize that 'anarchism had led in 1936 (in Spain) to a social revolution and to a rough sketch, the most advanced ever, of proletarian power'. [25]

What the situationists reject in anarchist theory is what they call the separation between theory and practice; in other words, they condemn anarchist ideology as being only an ideal and not a logically deduced praxis. But anarchism2 nonetheless, retains in their eyes the merit of 'representing the refusal of existing conditions for life as a whole'. [26] This avowal confirms the impression produced by the study of situational themes : if they include some elements of anarchist criticism, they also refuse in advance to cut themselves off from any particular revolutionary theory or practice. As for the forms which the revolutionary struggle should take, the situationists clearly borrowed them from the revolutionary practice of the 20th century: Guy Debord tells us that the workers' councils are 'the political form, which has at last been discovered, in which the economic liberation of labour [can be] brought about'. [27] In other words, the situationists want to find their origins in a praxis which creates its own theory, while the anarchist movement is regarded as imposing on the workers an ideology which is only an ideology. The leading actors in the 22 March Movement illustrate even more clearly this ideological eclecticism and this mistrust of the 'great family' of anarchism. The majority of them had fought at one time or another in the small anarchist or anarchizing groups which had left the French Anarchist Federation and had freed themselves both sentimentally and politically from a particular anarchist 'dogmatism'. These groups had wanted not so much to renew anarchism as to renew revolutionary theory: in publications such as Noire et Rouge, Informations Correspondance Ouvrieres, Socialisme ou Barbarie; a complete reconsideration was undertaken, starting with the revolutionary experiences of the last decades.These journals published theoretical and critical articles on the movement of workers' councils in Germany, on self-management in Yugoslavia and later in Algeria, on the Spanish experiments in self-management, etc. In this crucible, anarchism was smelted with other ideologies and practices. The militants formed in this milieu, of which Daniel Cohn-Bendit is the best-known, had broken their links with any school; this state of mind enabled them to innovate, while keeping elements from the revolutionary saga of the past. Those who took part in the university disturbances of 1967-68 had definitely sown their anarchist wild oats while gaining some knowledge of modern sociological analysis and adopting new ideas taken from non-anarchist horizons. Contacts with the Trotskyists, with the students from Berkeley or from the German SDS, added new elements to the old sediment. By this means they learnt of new forms of tactics such as permanent contestation, provocation at all levels of social life in order to 'unmask, to uncover the real mechanism of the capitalist system…' [28] This generation admits that it owes to anarchism only the rejection of all dogmatism, of the authoritarianism of Leninist organizations. [29] And if they have retained from anarchism the ideas of organizing themselves into small autonomous groups and of self-management, it is also true that they have been inspired by the Marxist analysis of the relations of production and of classes. They have learnt the lesson of the Kronstadt revolt, of the occupation of factories in Italy in 1920, and of the confrontations on the campus of Berkeley. Daniel Cohn-Bendit states, for instance, that he was influenced by the Trotskyist criticism of Soviet society, by Mao Tse-tung on the question of the revolutionary alliance with the peasant masses, and by Marcuse when it comes to demonstrating the repressive nature of modern society or when the latter proclaims that everything must be destroyed in order that everything could be rebuilt later. [30] Therefore, indifferent to labels, the contestarians describe themselves as 'libertarian Marxists' when they are forced to answer this kind of question. [31]


After this rapid survey of the themes and sources of contestation, one can well ask whether the spontaneist groups reflect their time, if the practice of social conflict in recent years in France is in accord with their ideological postulates. In other words, was the course of social struggle carried on in an anarchist way? From the outset, one comes up against a formidable obstacle: the lack of accurate information, of research and monographs undertaken in satisfactory conditions. Every strike, every work-stoppage, every wage-claim of any size in the last decade would have to be the object of careful sociological study. We have some facts and, if they are carefully handled, they enable us to come to some conclusions which are really only hypotheses, to be verified in the future by historians and sociologists who will have at their disposal an infinitely richer documentation.

In most modern sectors of the economy, in the metallurgical, engineering, and petro-chemical industries, but also in banks, insurance companies, and advertising agencies, one sees in Prance a gradual change in the methods of social conflict. It is remarkable that though this change did not start in May 1968, neither did it cease after the end of the strikes in June 1968. It seems indeed that a movement, a trend, began in about 1966 and has spread for some years without allowing any conclusion to be drawn as to whether it was an ephemeral or a structural phenomenon. The main characteristics of what can for convenience's sake be called contestation are: work stoppage is most frequently decided for an unlimited period, accompanied by occupation of the sites; the demands concern not so much questions of working categories, but broader 'qualitative' issues such as the hierarchic structure in the enterprise, the wage system as a whole, management in and of the enterprise; the decision to strike (and its organization) is taken outside the unions, or, at least, does not arise simply on the initiative of the union delegates as in the case of the 'classic' strike; sometimes the strike takes place even against the advice of the unions; the organization of the strike does not take into account the distinction between unionists and non-unionists; often, direct democracy is introduced in the form of the general assembly of the strikers, deciding on all important issues, appointing commissions of work and delegates, subject to recall, whether or not they belong to a union; the new forms taken by social conflicts are found most often in firms in which there is a great turnover among personnel, where managerial authoritarianism is pronounced, where operations have been speeded up and where the Confederation Generale du Travail is relatively weak (and correspondingly the Confederation Francaise Democratique de Travail is rather strong). The initiative is taken by the younger workers, in some cases the very young (under twenty).

To illustrate these general remarks, one can go back to the period before the general strike of May-June 1968. This strike was preceded, not to say prepared, by a movement of 'harassing strikes' which had already all the characteristics of the May 1968 strikes [32]: wildcat strikes (not supported by the unions), involving the occupation of the buildings, the locking up of the director, confrontations with the police, sometimes 'fraternization' with the students. There is one extremely concise study, written and published before the events of May 7968, on the synthetic textile factory Rhodiaceta, in Besancon, which was occupied by strikers on 25 February 7967. All the above-mentioned conditions were present there: in particular, a majority of the CFDT, high speed work, a 'rationalized' organization of work. The strike, moreover, was declared because of the conditions of work and hierarchic relations; wage claims were only secondary issues. [33] The period of occupation produced an indisputably libertarian atmosphere: continual comings and goings of families, visitors, students, passionate discussions in the general assemblies and commissions, plays staged on the factory floor, the creation of a library. The movement spread through osmosis to other factories in the region. The rise in wages (3.8%) granted on 22 March 1967 did not mark the end of the struggle.

Other strikes took place in 1967-68 which were very different from the traditional strikes declared by the union delegation under the very precise 'quantitative' slogan and for a limited period. These strikes which were described at the time as 'workers' jacqueries' (Jean Lacouture) took place in Caen, Mulhouse, Redon and Le Mans. Those in the area round Caen have been carefully studied. [34] There, too the reason given for the strike was the 'whole range of relations within the framework of the socio-economic structure', What was contested in the first-place were relations within the factory; what was already demanded was workers' Control. Here again the strike was from the outset unlimited in time, sites were occupied, confrontation with the gardes-mobiles was violent. Those taking part were young workers working at very high speed, with a very high turnover of personnel (20 to 25%). Again, the CFDT was firmly established and the CGT weak. One of these firms, Saviem, at Blainville-sur-Orne, was the first in the region in May 1968 to declare an unlimited strike.

By May this kind of strike had become usual. Its characteristics had been accentuated within a national movement which comprised nearly ten million strikers. The new forms of contestation have been sufficiently described, and need not be insisted upon here. The region round Nantes probably went furthest along the road of contestation. The Sud-Aviation factory at Bouguenais (a suburb of Nantes) was the first to come out on strike (14 May), to occupy the huge area coveted by the factory, to lock up the management and to set up a defence of the plant. The development of the strike at Sud-Aviation is fairly well-known: the arguments, the topics discussed, the actions and attitudes of the strikers are familiar through in-numerable documents and particularly films made on the spot. The experience of Sud-Aviation spread to the whole city of Nantes, to the extent that one could speak of the commune of Nantes' and even of the 'Soviet of Reze'. [35] What can be gathered from this experience is that there was a central strike committee at city level and that there were various local committees and managements which saw to it that the economic life of the city was carried on. For more than a fortnight, the city was in a state of quasi-self-management. Though we should have no illusions about the libertarian character of the General Strike Council, which was in reality an inter-union committee serving as an observation-post for the various unions, it remains nonetheless true that the running of daily life was taken over by the inhabitants themselves. It is, on the other hand, very much mote difficult to pinpoint the influence of the anarchists (influential within the departmental union of the CGT-FO, led by an anarcho-syndicalist of the old school Alexandre Hebert) and the leftists in the student union (AGEN). The latter, it seems, were fairly close to the situationists. [36]

If one assumes that there was continuity with the period preceding May 1968 there are indications which point to a persistence of new forms taken by the social struggle after the movement for the occupation of sites had been exhausted. Thus, in some firms, new institutions which appeared only in May-June 1968 have become permanent. [37] In many factories where this was not the case 'the psychology of the workers is still... marked by the struggle undertaken in I968'. [38] .Above all, we see the repetition of the above-mentioned forms of social conflict If one considers only cases which are known and publicized, one must mention the 'anti-hierarchical' strike at Coder in Marseilles which took place in June 1969, in which the Nox workshop constituted itself as a general assembly and decreed an unlimited strike in spite of the public and very firm opposition of the CGT. [39] In the same way, the steel works of La Sollac in the Moselle were occupied for a fortnight in March-April 1969 and an unlimited strike was declared in May 1969 in spite of the unions. The demands encompassed the whole wage system. [40]

In some cases, the 'wildcat' strike, occupation, 'qualitative' claims, in short the direct contestation of the managerial role in the plant took place without reference to May 1968. Even more novel forms of contestation appeared, such as the active solidarity and driving-force supplied in the negotiations by the strikers' wives. [41]

The uninterrupted wave of strikes makes one wonder whether this is not a definite innovation in methods of social conflict. Only the future can show whether the unions will be supplanted by new structures such as factory committees, or a French equivalent of the British shop-stewards. It must be realized that, for the last three years, wherever it has been possible to observe the development of a strike, it has been noticeable that the traditional framework has tended to disappear: the radical contestation of all aspects of power within the factory, the attempts at self-organization, even self-management, criticism of the very role of the unions, the unleashing of conflicts in whole sectors, are the distinctive signs of a mode of action which may well be described as libertarian.


It is undoubtedly true that for some years now libertarian themes and practices have been on the upsurge. But the question which I asked at the beginning of this article cannot be answered definitively. Is this simply the rebirth of anarchism or does it go further? Some authors have tried to make an elegant synthesis by speaking of libertarian Marxism. [42] Others distinguish between the petit-bourgeois anarchism, turned back on the past, which disappeared at the end of the last century and the anarchism orientated to the future which appeared in France in I968. [43] This in my opinion, is to draw too quick a conclusion while we ate still too near to recent events, the echoes of which have not yet died away. One thing is certain, however, namely that Marxist ideologies of Bolshevik inspiration (Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism) have had little influence on recent social conflicts in France. [44] But anarchism as a social movement has not been able to arise from the ashes; in this sense, one must agree with recent historians of anarchism who see no traces of its survival except in the vast realm of ideas. [45] Yet even if one agrees with this view it cannot he denied that some themes are perennial. Nevertheless it is also true that the identification between the ideology of the anti-authoritarian groups and the spontaneous action of the anonymous masses has given rise to a way of thinking and of action which is almost unprecedented.45 Thus the question remains: ate we witnessing in France the last spasm of the old practices which would mark the end of a diffuse tradition of 'violent' social revolts and movements (the Commune, the strikes in 1919-20, 1936, 1947). [47] Or, on the contrary, are these the prologue of anew revolutionary project which seeks by original means (which mingle old and new elements) to 'transform the world' and 'to change life'? The sole aim of this article is to pose the question clearly by illustrating it from the French experience of generalized contestation.


1 Genuine anarchists like Daniel Guerin ('Mai, une continuitie, un reaouveau' in Le Fait public 6, May 1969) or historians of anarchism like Jean Maitron ('Anarchisme' in La mouvment social,, 69, October-December 1969) have stressed the libertarian inspiration of the 'events'.

2 The almost complete absence of the political aspect before the end of May has been noted, but less than one 'night have expected, seeing how obvious it was. See, for example Harvey G. Simmonds: 'The French Socialist Opposition' in Government and Opposition, Vol.4, No.3, p.306.

3 One of the best-known members of the Anarchist Federation expressed this as follows: 'We had no influence on the events which we had not foreseen'. Maurice Joyeux, in an interview in Le fait public, 14, January 1970, p.40.

4 Cf for example, Jacques Julliard 'Syndicalisme revolutionnaire et revolution etudiante', Esprit, 6-7, June-July 1968, who believes that the students revived the subterranean current of the workers' movement which seemed to have died in 1914. He also noted the anarchist themes shared by the revolutionary trade unionists and the students in 1968. Similarly, G. Adam asked in 'Mai, ou les lecons de l'histoire ouvriere', France-Forum, 90-9I, October-November 1963, whether the May slogans did not represent the expression of the modern dream of the total emancipation of revolutionary syndicalism.

5 As M. Reberioux pointed out ('Tout ca n'empeche pas, Nicholas, que la Commune n'est pas morte') in Poiltique aujordrurd'hui, No.5, May 1969. Proudhon's influence on revolutionary trade syndicalism is studied by A. Kriegel: 'Le syndicalisme revolutionnaire et Proudhon' in L'actualite de Proudhon, Brussels, published by l'Institut de Sociologie Libre de Bruxelles, 1967. The delayed arrival of Marxism in France has recently been stressed by M. Dommanget:, L'introduction du marxisme en France, Paris, 1967. The sectional life of the sans-culotterie in Paris is analysed by A. Soboul Les sans-culottes Paris, Seuil, 1968.

8 Some of the inscriptions are to be found in Les murs ont la parole, Paris, Tchou, 1968.

7 For a more detailed study of the themes of small groups see my Le projet revolutionnaire: elements d'une sociologie des evenemetst de mai-juin1968i, Paris, The Hague; Mouton, 1969, which also contains references to the original documents which I shall therefore not reproduce here.

8 An analysis which has been perfected and taken to its logical conclusion by I. Deutscher in The Unfinished Revolution, London, 1967.

9 The essence of situationist ideas is to be found in G. Debord, La societe du spectacle, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1967; R. Vaneigem, Traite de savoir-vivre a i'usage des jeunes generations, Paris, Gallimard, 1967, and in the twelve numbers of L'internationale situationniste, especially in the last five numbers.

10 Cf. especially the prophetic pages of Bakunin on bureaucracy and 'official democracy'.

11 This is Andre Breton's expression which he seems to have borrowed from Rimbaud. Maurice Nadeau, Histoire du surrealisme, Paris, Seuil, 1964, p.160. The idea that the cultural revolution is inseparable from the political revolution was very strongly held by the German dadaists, cf. the dadaist text: 'What is dadaism and what does it mean for Germany' (which must date from 1919), translated into French by A. Guillerm, La luxemborgisme aujourd'hui , Spartacus, n.d. (1970).

12 The situationist movement grew out of the Internationale Lettriste and COBRA movement. The first numbers of L'internationale situationniste are devoted to art criticism, especially of architecture and modern town-planning. In 1959 a further appeal addressed to intellectuals discounted the possibility of a proletarian revolution, believing solely in a 'cultural' one brought about by the Intellectuals through unitary urbanism. For the origins of the Internationale Situationniste cf. J. L. Brau, Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derriere toi! ,Paris, A. Michel; 1968.

13 In addition to the text by Annie Kriegel already quoted, see also this phrase of Monatte: 'Syndicalism... has based its concept on work, on respect for work, on the usefulness of work, on its emancipation and organization', quoted by H. Dubief, Le syndicalisme revolutionnaire, Paris, Colin, 1969, p.36. For the situationists, on the contrary, 'it is work itself, that must today he attacked... its suppression is the primary condition for the effective over-taking of the mercantile society' De Ia misire en milieu etudiant, AFGES 1966, pp. 30-31 (first edition).

14 M. Nadeau, op. cit, p.62, footnote 31.

15 R. Vaneigem, op. cit., pp. 268-76.

16 See what Vaneigem has to say on the subject, loc. cit.

17 R Navarri: 'les dadaistes, les surrealistes et Ia revolution d'octobre' in Europe, 461-2, September-october, 1967. The themes of the socialism of the workers' councils had already appeared in the early 1960s; see, for example, No.6 of L'internationale situationniste, August 1961.

18 D. Guerin demonstrates clearly that the idea of self-management, common to the Italian anarchists and to the group of Ordine Nuovo did not mean the same to both groups. This was the cause of the break between the anarchists and Gramsci and his friends after the sit-ins in 1920. L'anarchisme, Paris, Gallimard, 1965, pp.129-31.

19 The most radical criticism of trade-unionism 'has been put forward by Benjamin Peret who was himself a surrealist rather than an anarchist. He urged the 'destruction' of the unions as long ago as 1951 and his writings are fairly well known to the groups of the Anarchist Federation. B. Peret and G. Munis, Let syndicats contre Ia revolution, Paris, B. Losefeld,1968. The problem is a far older one since, from the foundation of the CGT, the 'pure' anarchists opposed the idea that their comrades should join it. The creature capacity of,the masses was stressed by Rosa Luxemburg and there is certainly a measure of 'Luxemburgism' in the French Left. At the very end of her life, she proposed 'the liquidation of the trade unions' and believed that workers' councils (Arbeiterate) were the only bodies capable of establishing socialism (Congress of the Spartacus League, third session).

20 In an 'Address to all Workers', the situationists described the current events as 'a revolutionary movement in which only the awareness of what had already been accomplished was lacking'; reproduced in R. Vienet, Enrages et situationnistes dans Ie mouvement des occupations, Paris,. Gallimard, 1968, pp.282-4 (italics supplied by the present author).

21 On the central role played by the movement of 22 March during the May-June revolt and their 'identification with the latest trends', see F. Arval: 'Sur le mouvement du 22 mars' in France-Forum, 90-9I, October-November 1968.

22 The arguments about tactics and the attempts to systematize among the militants of 22 March are to he found in Ce n'est qu'un debut - continuons le combat, Paris, F. Maspero, 1968.

23 The history of the group of the Enrage's-Internationale Sitnationniste and of the CMDO has been written by R. Vienet, op. cit.; pamphlets are reprinted in an appendix. The contents of these pamphlets can be compared with the very clear exposition of the political ideas of the situationists by Mustapha Khayati in 'De Ia misere en milieu etudiant', op. cit

24 See, for example, the strange pamphlet of 6 May 1968 in which the enrage's jeer at the 'anarchists-a-la-Cohn-Bendit'. reproduced in R. Vienet, op. cit, pp.260-61. In number 12 of L'internationale situationniste, which was published after the 'events', the situationists denied that they were 'spontaneists'. Pinning their revolutionary hopes on the masses, but opposed to any vanguard, they relied nevertheless on the 'spontaneous' gift for organization of the workers whatever that might amount to.

25 G. Debord, La societe du spectacle, p. 75.

26 Loc. cit., p.72.

27 Ibidem, p.97.

28 Interview with Karl D. Wolff, president of the SDS in L'homme at Ia societe, 8, April-May-Jun; 1968, p.134.

29 Interview with D. Cohn-Bendit in Magazine litteraire, 8, May 1968. The main reproach made to the anarchists of the older generstion3 was that they had withdrawn into the realms of philosophy and utopianism.

30 Op. cit It is remarkable mat Daniel Cohn-Bendit says that he too was influenced by dadaism. As can be seen, the sources of inspiration of the contestarians were the same.

31 Cf. for example D. and G. Cohn-Bendit, La gauchism, remede a Ia maladie senile du communisme, Paris, seuil, 1968.

32 The incidence of strikes which heralded a general strike was noted by several observers, cf. Les evenements de mai-juin vus a travers cent entreptises, Centre National d'Information pour la Productivite des Entreprises, n.d. (July 1968). In spite of the attitude particular to this study, there is no reason to doubt the basic data, especially as they are corroborated by other written or verbal sources.

33 M. A. Burnier, 'Besancon: occupation d'usine; colere froide' in L'evenements, 15, April 1967. According to the author this was the first case of a factory being occupied in France since 1947.

34 S. Perignon: 'Action syndicale et decentralisations industrielles (Leds greves de janvier 1968 dans la region caennaise)' in L'homme et la societe, 9, July-September 1968.

35 See the remarkable study by P. Galard: 'La second pouvoir du mai nantais' in Politique aujourd'hui, 8-9, August-September 1969. Cf. also Sm invaluable document: 'Nantes, toute une ville decouvre le pouvoir populaire', in Cahiers de mai No.1, 15 June 1968 (a series of interviews with the strikers in Nantes during the occupations).

36 P. Galard mentions the contacts between the students in Nantes and the situationists in Strasbourg before May 1968; during the strike one of the situationists went to Nantes and met the leaders of the Student Association. Cf. Internationale situationniste, 12, September 1969.

37 Thus in the CSF of Issy-les-Moulineaux, the fuctional action committees continued to exist after the strikers returned to work, Cahiers de mai 2, I-15 July 1968.

38 M. F. and R. Mouriaux: 'La mai des proletaires a Usinor-Dunkerque' in Politique ajourd'hui 2, February 1970. Three conflicts have taken place in Usinor-Dunkerque since May 1968, two of which have involved occupying the buildings, op. cit.

39 Cahiers de mai, 12, June 1969.

40 Ibidem. The Cahiers de mai are an inexhaustible source of information, alt the strikes are mentioned by name and research on the spot has been undertaken among the strikers. Although this is a partisan journal, the facts as reported in it do not appear to suffer from this.

41 This is what happened in the strike in the Penrroya de Largentiere mines (Ardeche) which in February 1970 entirely paralysed all mining operations, see Cahiers de mai, 18, March 1970. It is very significant that the trade unions them-selves had to have recourse to procedures (spontaneously in nearly all the plants) such as a referendum to decide the outcome of the strike. The same thing happened in the case of the recent vote held by the CGT on 4 January 1970 in the EDF (Electricite de France).

42 This is true of D. Guerin. See his interview, already quoted, in Le fait public.

43 Tom Nairn, 'Why it Happened', in Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End,London, 1968. This is also, on the whole, the thesis of Edgar Morin, quoted by Nairn.

44 The lack of impact which the Trotskyist and Maoist groups had on the events of May-June has not been sufficiently noted. They were unable to implant their ideas (and more understandably their organization) either in the occupied factories or in the innumerable action committees which sprang up the day after 13 May 1968. Later, they joined the fashion of the day, under-playing their slogans on the formation of a revolutionary party, and fell back on forms of action advocated by the 22 March Movement. There were even cases of unnatural marriages taking place between Maoism and Spontaneism (e.g. the 'Mao-Spontex' group). On the lack of impact of the authoritarian groups, see F. Arval, 'Sur le mouvement du 22 mars' quoted above, and my study, La projet revolutionnaire, chapter 2.

45 See for example, I. L. Horowitz, The Anarchists; New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1964, Introduction.

46 As Claude Lefort so justly remarked about the student revolt in Nanterre in 1967-68: see B. Morin, C. Lefort, J. M. Coudray, Mai 1968. La Breche, Paris, Fayard, 1968, p. 45.

47 It must he remembered that membership of the trade unions in France does not exceed 20% of the active population. Thus the trade unionists were unable to channel the revolt towards reform until after an outburst which lasted three weeks or more. For, although the unions (including the CGT in periods of social unrest become in France as they do in other countries 'a restraining factor' (the term is G. Lefranc's in 'Visages du syndicalisme francais' in Revue de defense nationale, January 1969), the unions are too numerous, and have too little influence over the bulk of the workers, to play a regulative role as well as in Great Britain and the USA.

Taken from the collection Anarchism Today,ed. David E. Apter and James Joll, Macmillan, 1971, which was first published as a special edition of the journal Government and Opposition.

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