B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


The Beginning of an Era

(Part 2)


With the defeat of the revolution, the sociotechnical mechanisms of false consciousness were naturally reestablished, virtually intact: when the spectacle clashes with its pure negation, no reformism can succeed in winning an increase, not even of 7%,(1) in the spectacle’s concessions to reality. To demonstrate this to even the most casual observer it would suffice to examine the some 300 books on May that have appeared in France alone in the year following the occupations movement. It is not the number of books in itself that merits being scoffed at or blamed, as certain people obsessed with the perils of cooption have felt obliged to declare (people who, moreover, have little to worry about on that score since they generally haven’t come up with anything the coopters would be interested in). This huge quantity reflects the fact that the historic importance of the movement has been deeply sensed, in spite of all the incomprehension and interested denials. What is deplorable is the fact that out of three hundred books there are scarcely a dozen that are worth reading: a few accounts or analyses that don’t follow laughable ideologies, and a few collections of unfalsified documents. The misinformation and falsification prevalent everywhere are particularly evident in almost all the accounts of the situationists’ activities. Leaving aside those books that limit themselves to remaining silent on this topic, or to a few absurd accusations, we can distinguish three main styles of falsification. The first pattern consists in limiting the SI’s activity to Strasbourg, eighteen months before, as a remote initial triggering of a crisis from which it would later seem to have disappeared (this is also the position of the Cohn-Bendits’ book [Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative], which even manages not to say a word about the existence of the Nanterre “Enragés” group). The second pattern, presenting a positive lie and no longer merely a lie by omission, asserts, in spite of all indications to the contrary, that the situationists accepted some sort of contact with the March 22nd Movement; and many even go so far as to claim that we were an integral part of it. The third pattern presents us as an autonomous group of irresponsible maniacs springing up by surprise, perhaps even armed, at the Sorbonne and elsewhere in order to stir up disorder and shout extravagant demands.

It is difficult, however, to deny a certain continuity in the situationists’ action from 1967-1968. This very continuity, in fact, seems to have been felt as an annoyance by those who through their quantity of ostentatious interviews or recruitments strove to be recognized as leaders of the movement, a role the SI has always rejected for itself: their stupid ambition leads some of these people to hide certain facts that they are a bit more aware of than are others. Situationist theory had a significant role in the origins of the generalized critique that gave rise to the first incidents of the May crisis and that developed along with that crisis. This was not only due to our intervention against the University of Strasbourg. Two or three thousand copies each of Vaneigem’s and Debord’s books [The Revolution of Everyday Life and The Society of the Spectacle], for example, had already been circulated in the months preceding May, particularly in Paris, and an unusually high proportion of them had been read by revolutionary workers (according to certain indications it also appears that these two books were the most frequently stolen from bookstores in 1968, at least relative to their circulation). By way of the Enragés group, the SI can flatter itself that it was not without importance in the very origin of the Nanterre agitation, which was to have such far-reaching effects. Finally, we don’t think we remained too far behind the great spontaneous movement of the masses that dominated the country in May 1968, both in what we did at the Sorbonne and in the various subsequent forms of action carried out by the Council for Maintaining the Occupations. In addition to the SI itself and to a good number of individuals who acknowledged its theses and acted accordingly, many others defended situationist perspectives, whether unconsciously or as a result of direct influence, because those perspectives were to a large extent objectively implied by the present era of revolutionary crisis. Those who doubt this need only read the walls (those without this direct experience can refer to the collection of photographs published by Walter Lewino, L’Imagination au pouvoir, Losfeld, 1968).

It can thus be said that the systematic minimization of the SI is merely a detail corresponding to the current (and, from the dominant viewpoint, natural) minimization of the whole occupations movement. But the sort of jealousy felt by certain leftists, which strongly contributes to this minimization, is completely off base. Even the most “extreme-left” of the little groups have no grounds for setting themselves up as rivals to the SI, because the SI is not a group of their type, competing on their terrain of militantism or claiming like they do to be leading the revolutionary movement in the name of the “correct” interpretation of one or another petrified truth derived from Marxism or anarchism. To see the question in this way is to forget that, in contrast to these abstract repetitions in which old conclusions that happen still to be valid in class struggles are inextricably mixed in with a mass of conflicting errors and frauds, the SI had above all brought a new spirit into the theoretical debates about society, culture and life. This spirit was assuredly revolutionary. It entered to a certain extent into a relation with the real revolutionary movement that was recommencing. And it was precisely to the extent that this movement also had a new character that it turned out to resemble the SI and partially appropriated its theses; and not at all by way of the traditional political process of recruiting members or followers. The largely new character of this practical movement is easily discernable in this very influence the SI exerted, an influence completely divorced from any directing role. All the leftist tendencies — including the March 22nd Movement, which included in its hodgepodge Leninism, Chinese Stalinism, anarchism and even a dash of misunderstood “situationism” — relied very explicitly on a long history of past struggles, examples and doctrines that had been published and discussed a hundred times. It is true that these struggles and publications had been smothered by Stalinist reaction and neglected by bourgeois intellectuals. But they were nevertheless incomparably more accessible than the SI’s new positions, which had never had any means to make themselves known except our own recent publications and activities. If the SI’s few known documents found such an audience it was obviously because a part of the advanced practical critique recognized itself in this language. We thus now find ourselves in a rather good position to say what May was essentially, even in its latent aspects; to make conscious the unconscious tendencies of the occupations movement. Others lyingly say that there was nothing to understand in this absurd outbreak; or describe, through the filter of their ideology, only a few older and less important aspects of the movement as if that was all there was to it; or simply draw from it new topics for their academic “studies” and consequenceless “conferences” and  “debates.” They have the support of major newspapers and influential connections, of sociology and mass-market circulation. We don’t have any of that and we draw our right to speak only from ourselves. Yet what they say about May will inevitably fade in indifference and be forgotten; and what we say about it will remain, and will ultimately be believed and taken up again.

The influence of situationist theory can be read not only on the walls, but in the diversely exemplary actions of the revolutionaries of Nantes and the Enragés of Nanterre. In the press at the beginning of 1968 one can see the indignation that was aroused by the new forms of action initiated or systematized by the Enragés, those “campus hooligans” who one day decided that “everything disputable must be disputed” and ended up shaking up the whole university.

In fact, those who at that time met and formed the Enragés group had no preconceived idea of agitation. The only reason they had signed up as “students” was in order to get grants. It simply happened that broken-down streets and slums were less odious to them than concrete buildings, thickheaded self-satisfied students and smooth-tongued modernist professors. In the former terrain they saw some vestiges of humanity, whereas they found only poverty, boredom and lies in the cultural soup where Lefebvre and his honesty, Touraine and his end of class struggle, Bourricaud and his strongarms and Lourau and his future were all splashing about in unison. Furthermore, they were familiar with the situationist theses and they knew that these thinkers of the university ghetto also were aware of them and used them to modernize their ideologies. They decided to let everyone know about this, and set about unmasking the lies, with the expectation of finding other playgrounds later on: they reckoned that once the liars and the students were routed and the university was destroyed, chance would weave them other encounters on another scale and that then “fortune and misfortune would take their shape.”

Their avowed pasts (predominantly anarchist, but also surrealist and in one case Trotskyist) immediately worried those they first confronted: the old leftist sects, CLER Trotskyists, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other anarchist students, all wrangling over the lack of future of the UNEF [National Student Union] and the function of psychologists. By making numerous exclusions without useless leniency they guarded against the success they rapidly encountered among a couple dozen students, as well as warding off various stupid would-be followers seeking a situationism without situationists in which they could give vent to all their obsessions and woes. As a result, the group which sometimes had as many as fifteen members more often consisted of a mere half-dozen agitators. Which turned out to be enough.

If the methods used by the Enragés — particularly the sabotage of lectures — are commonplace today in both universities and high schools, at the time they profoundly scandalized the leftists as well as the good students; the former sometimes even organized squads to protect the professors from the hails of insults and rotten oranges. The spread of the use of deserved insults and of graffiti, the call for a total boycott of exams, the distribution of leaflets on university premises, and finally the simple daily scandal of their existence drew upon the Enragés the first attempt at repression: Riesel and Bigorgne were summoned before the dean on January 25; Cheval was expelled from the campus at the beginning of February; Bigorgne was expelled from the university grounds later that same month and then banned from all French universities for five years at the beginning of April. Meanwhile the leftist groups began a more narrowly political agitation.

The old apes of the intellectual reservation, lost in the muddled presentation of their “thought,” only belatedly started to get worried. But they were soon forced to drop their masks and make fools of themselves, as when Edgar Morin, green with spite amidst the hooting of students, screamed, “The other day you consigned me to the trashcan of history . . .” (Interruption: “How did you get back out?”) “I prefer to be on the side of the trashcans rather than on the side of those who handle them, and in any case I prefer to be on the side of the trashcans rather than on the side of the crematories!” Or Alain Touraine, foaming at the mouth and howling: “I’ve had enough of these anarchists and more than enough of these situationists! Right now I am in command here, and if one day you are, I will go somewhere else where people know what it means to work!” A year later these profound perceptions were further developed in articles by Raymond Aron and René Étiemble protesting the impossibility of working under the rising tide of leftist totalitarianism and red fascism. From January 26 to March 22 violent class disruptions were almost constant. The Enragés participated in this continuous agitation while working on several projects that proved abortive, including the publication of a pamphlet projected for the beginning of May and the invasion and looting of the administration building with the aid of some revolutionaries from Nantes at the beginning of March. But even before having seen that much, Dean Grappin, speaking at a press conference on March 20, denounced “a group of irresponsible students who for several months have been disrupting classes and examinations and practicing guerrilla methods in the University. . . . These students are not connected with any known political organization. They constitute an explosive element in a very sensitive milieu.” As for the pamphlet, the Enragés’ printer did not progress as fast as the revolution. After the crisis they had to abandon the idea of publishing this text, which would have seemed intended to demonstrate retrospectively their prophetic accuracy.

All this explains the interest the Enragés took in the evening of March 22, however dubious they already were about most of the other protesters. While Cohn-Bendit, already a star in the Nanterre skies, was debating with the less decided, ten Enragés took the initiative of occupying the Faculty Council room, where they were only joined 22 minutes later by the future “March 22nd Movement.” Viénet’s book describes how and why they withdrew from this farce.(2) In addition, they saw that the police were not coming and that with such people they could not carry out the only objective they had planned for the night: the complete destruction of the exam files. In the early hours of the 23rd they decided to exclude five of their number who had refused to leave the room out of fear that they would be “cutting themselves off from the masses” of students!

It is certainly piquant to find that the origin of the May movement involved a settling of accounts with the two-faced thinkers of the old Arguments gang. But in attacking this ugly cohort of state-appointed subversive thinkers, the Enragés were doing more than settling an old quarrel: they already spoke as an occupations movement struggling for everyone’s real occupation of all the sectors of a social life governed by lies. And by writing “Take your desires for reality” on the concrete walls, they were already destroying the cooptive ideology of the “Power to the imagination” slogan that was pretentiously launched by the March 22nd Movement. Because they had desires, while the latter had no imagination.

The Enragés scarcely returned to Nanterre in April. The vague fancies of direct democracy ostentatiously proclaimed by the March 22nd Movement obviously could not be realized in such bad company, and they refused in advance the small place that would readily have been granted them as extremist entertainers to the left of the laughable “Culture and Creativity Commission.” On the other hand, the taking up of some of their agitational techniques by the Nanterre students, even if within a confused “anti-imperialism” perspective, meant that the debate was beginning to be placed on the terrain the Enragés had wanted to establish. This was also demonstrated by the Parisian students’ May 3 attack on the police in response to the university administration’s latest blunder. The Enragés’ violent warning leaflet, Gut Rage, distributed on May 6, chimed so perfectly with the real movement that the only people it outraged were the Leninists it denounced; in two days of street fighting the rioters had discovered its relevance. The Enragés’ autonomous activity culminated as consistently as it had begun. They were treated as situationists even before entering the SI, in that the leftist coopters picked up on some of their ideas while imagining that they could conceal the existence of their source through lavish performances in front of the reporters whom the Enragés had naturally rebuffed. The very term “Enragés,” by which Riesel had given an unforgettable touch to the occupations movement, was later for a while given a spectacular “Cohn-Bendist” meaning.

The rapid succession of street struggles in the first ten days of May had immediately brought together the members of the SI, the Enragés and a few other comrades. Their accord was formalized on May 14, the day after the occupation of the Sorbonne, when they federated as an “Enragés-SI Committee” which began that very day to publish texts thus signed. In the following days we carried out a more widespread autonomous expression of situationist theses within the movement. But this was not in order to lay down particular principles in accordance with which we would have claimed to shape or guide the real movement: in saying what we thought we also said who we were, while so many others were disguising themselves in order to explain that it was necessary to follow the correct line of their central committee. That evening the Sorbonne general assembly, which was effectively open to the workers, undertook to organize its own power, and René Riesel, who had expressed the most radical positions on the organization of the Sorbonne itself as well as on the total extension of the struggle that had begun, was elected to the first Occupation Committee. On the 15th the situationists in Paris addressed a circular to persons elsewhere in France and in other countries: To the members of the SI and to the comrades who have declared themselves in agreement with our theses. This text briefly analyzed the process that was going on and its possible developments, in order of decreasing probability: exhaustion of the movement if it remained limited “to the students before the antibureaucratic agitation has extended more deeply into the worker milieu”; repression; or finally, “social revolution?” It also contained an account of our activity up till then and called for immediate action to “publicize, support and extend the agitation.” We proposed as immediate themes in France: “the occupation of the factories” (we had just learned of the Sud-Aviation occupation that had taken place the night before); “the formation of workers councils; the definitive shutdown of the universities; and the complete critique of all forms of alienation.” It should be noted that this was the first time since the SI was formed that we ever asked anyone, however close they were to our positions, to do anything. All the more reason why our circular did not remain without response, particularly in the cities where the May movement was asserting itself most strongly. On the evening of the 16th the SI issued a second circular recounting the developments of the day and anticipating “a major confrontation.” The general strike interrupted this series, which was taken up in another form after May 20 by the emissaries that the CMDO sent throughout France and to various other countries.

Viénet’s book describes in detail how the majority of the members of the Sorbonne Occupation Committee, which was reelected en bloc by the general assembly on the evening of the 15th, soon after slunk away, yielding to the maneuvers and attempts at intimidation of an informal bureaucracy (UNEF, MAU, JCR, etc.) that was striving to surreptitiously recapture the Sorbonne. The Enragés and situationists thus found themselves with the responsibility for the Occupation Committee on May 16-17. When the general assembly of the 17th ended up neither approving the acts by which this Committee had carried out its mandate nor even disapproving them (the manipulators having prevented any vote in the assembly), we announced our departure from the played-out Sorbonne. Those who had grouped themselves around this Occupation Committee departed with us, and formed the core of the Council for Maintaining the Occupations. It is worth pointing out that the second Occupation Committee, elected after our departure, maintained its glorious bureaucratic existence without any further turnover until the return of the police in June. Never again was there any question of the assembly daily electing revocable delegates. This Committee of professionals soon even went so far as to suppress the general assemblies altogether, which from their point of view were only a cause of trouble and a waste of time. In contrast, the situationists can sum up their action in the Sorbonne with the single formula: “All power to the general assembly.” It is thus amusing to hear people now talking about the situationists’ having “taken power” in the Sorbonne, when the reality of this “power” was to constantly insist on direct democracy there and everywhere, to constantly denounce the coopters and bureaucrats, and to demand that the general assembly fulfill its responsibilities by making its own decisions and by seeing that they were carried out.

By its consistent attitude our Occupation Committee had aroused the general indignation of the leftist manipulators and bureaucrats. If we had defended the principles and methods of direct democracy in the Sorbonne, we nevertheless had no illusions as to the social composition and general level of consciousness of that assembly. We were quite aware of the paradox of delegates being more resolute in their desire for direct democracy than were their mandators, and we saw that it couldn’t last. But we were more than anything striving to put the not inconsiderable means with which the possession of the Sorbonne provided us at the service of the wildcat strike that had just started. Thus the Occupation Committee issued a brief communiqué at 3:00 p.m. on the 16th calling for “the immediate occupation of all the factories in France and the formation of workers councils.” All the other reproaches against us were almost nothing in comparison to the scandal provoked everywhere — except among the “rank-and-file” occupiers — by this “reckless” commitment of the Sorbonne. Yet at that very moment two or three factories were already occupied, some of the NMPP truckdrivers were trying to block the distribution of newspapers, and (as we were to learn two hours later) several Renault factories were successfully beginning to stop work. In the name of what, we wonder, could unauthorized individuals claim the right to manage the Sorbonne if they did not support the workers’ right to seize all the property in the country? It seems to us that the Sorbonne, by declaring itself for such occupations, was making its last response that still remained at the level of the movement that the factories were fortunately to carry on, that is to say, at the level of the response the factories themselves had made to the first limited struggles in the Latin Quarter. This appeal certainly did not run counter to the intentions of the majority of people who were at the Sorbonne and who did so much to spread it. Moreover, as the factory occupations spread, even the leftist bureaucrats changed their minds and expressed their support of a fait accompli on which they had not dared to take a stand the day before, though they continued to vehemently oppose the idea of councils. The occupations movement did not really need the approval of the Sorbonne in order to spread to other factories. But beyond the fact that at that moment every hour counted in linking up all the factories with the action initiated by a few of them, while the unions were stalling everywhere in order to prevent a general work stoppage; and beyond the fact that we knew that such an appeal, coming from the Sorbonne Occupation Committee, would immediately be widely disseminated, even by radio — beyond all this, it seemed to us above all important to show the maximum toward which the struggle that was beginning should aim right away. But the factories did not go so far as to form councils, and the strikers who began to come to the Sorbonne certainly did not discover any exemplary model there.

It seems likely that this appeal contributed here and there to opening up perspectives of radical struggle. In any case, it certainly figured among the events of that day that awakened the greatest fears. At 7:00 in the evening the Prime Minister issued an official statement declaring that “in view of the various attempts announced or initiated by extremist groups to provoke a generalized agitation,” the government would do everything possible to maintain “public peace” and republican order, “since university reform is turning into a mere pretext for plunging the country into disorder.” At the same time, 10,000 state trooper reservists were called up. “University reform” was indeed merely a pretext, even for the government, which masked its retreat in the face of the Latin Quarter riot behind this suddenly discovered respectable necessity.

The Council for Maintaining the Occupations, which at first occupied the IPN on Rue d’Ulm, did its best during the remainder of the crisis, to which, from the moment the strike became general and came to a defensive standstill, none of the then-existing organized revolutionary groups any longer had the means to make a notable contribution. Bringing together the situationists, the Enragés and some thirty to sixty other councilist revolutionaries (of whom less than a tenth could be considered students), the CMDO established a large number of linkups both within and outside France, making a special effort, toward the end of the movement, to communicate its significance to revolutionaries of other countries, who could not fail to be inspired by it. It published a number of posters and texts — around 200,000 copies of each in some cases — of which the most important were “Report on the Occupation of the Sorbonne” (May 19), “For the Power of the Workers Councils” (May 22) and “Address to All Workers” (May 30). The CMDO, which had been neither directed nor organized by anyone for the future, “decided to dissolve itself on June 15. . . . The CMDO had not sought to obtain anything for itself, not even any sort of recruitment in view of a continued existence. Its participants did not separate their personal goals from the general goals of the movement. They were independent individuals who had grouped together for a struggle on determined bases at a specific moment; and who again became independent after its dissolution” (Viénet, op. cit.). The Council for Maintaining the Occupations had been “a bond, not a power.”

Some people have reproached us, during May and since then, for having criticized everybody and for thus having presented the situationists’ activity as the only acceptable one. This is not true. We approved the mass movement in all its depth and the remarkable initiatives of tens of thousands of individuals. We approved of the conduct of several revolutionary groups that we knew of in Nantes and Lyon, as well as the acts of all those who were in contact with the CMDO. The documents reproduced in Viénet’s book clearly demonstrate that we also partially approved of a number of statements issued by some of the Action Committees.(3) It is certain that many groups or committees that were unknown to us during the crisis would have had our approval if we had been aware of them — and it is even more obvious that in being unaware of them we could in no way have criticized them. On the other hand, in regard to the little leftist parties or the March 22nd Movement, or people like Barjonet or Lapassade, it would indeed be surprising if anyone expected some polite approbation from us, considering our previous positions and the activity of these people during May.

Neither have we claimed that certain forms of action that characterized the occupations movement — with the possible exception of the use of critical comic strips — had a directly situationist origin. On the contrary, we see the origin of all these forms in “wildcat” workers’ struggles; and for several years our journals have pointed them out as they developed and clearly specified where they came from.(4) Workers were the first to attack a newspaper building to protest against the falsification of news concerning them (Liège, 1961); to burn cars (Merlebach, 1962); to begin writing on the walls the formulas of the new revolution (“Here freedom ends,” on a wall of the Rhodiaceta factory, 1967). On the other hand, we can point out, as a clear prelude to the Enragés’ activity at Nanterre, the fact that on 26 October 1966 in Strasbourg a university professor was for the first time attacked and driven from his podium: that was the fate to which the situationists subjected the cybernetician Abraham Moles at his inaugural lecture.

All the texts issued by the situationists during the occupations movement show that we never spread any illusions as to the chances for a complete success of the movement. We knew that this objectively possible and necessary revolutionary movement had begun from a subjectively very low level: spontaneous and fragmented, unaware of its own past and of its overall goals, it was reemerging after a half century of repression and in the face of its still firmly entrenched bureaucratic and bourgeois vanquishers. A lasting revolutionary victory was in our eyes only a very slim possibility between May 17 and May 30. But the moment this chance existed, we showed it to be the maximum that had come to be at stake as soon as the crisis reached a certain point, and as something certainly worth risking. From our point of view the movement was already a historic victory, regardless of where it might go from there, and we thought that even half of what had already happened would already have been a very significant result.

Nobody can deny that the SI, in contrast in this regard, too, to all the leftist groups, refused to make any propaganda for itself. The CMDO did not raise any “situationist banner” and none of our texts of the period mentioned the SI except in the one instance when we responded to the impudent invitation for a common front issued by Barjonet the day after the Charléty meeting. Amid all the brand-name initials of groups pretending to a leadership role, not a single inscription mentioning the SI was to be found on the walls of Paris, even though our partisans were undoubtedly the best and most prolific writers of graffiti.

It seems to us — and we present this conclusion first of all for the comrades of other countries that will experience crises of this nature — that these examples show what can be done in the first stage of reappearance of the revolutionary proletarian movement by a few basically coherent individuals. In May there were only ten or twelve situationists and Enragés in Paris and none in the rest of France. But the fortunate conjunction of spontaneous revolutionary improvisation with a sort of aura of sympathy that existed around the SI made possible the coordination of a rather widespread action, not only in Paris but in several large cities, as if there had been a preexisting nationwide organization. Even more far-reaching than this spontaneous organization, a sort of vague, mysterious situationist menace was felt and denounced in many places; those who embodied this menace were some hundreds or even thousands of individuals whom the bureaucrats and moderates called situationists or, more often, referred to by the popular abbreviation that appeared during this period, situs. We consider it an honor that this term, which seems to have originated as a pejorative term among certain student milieus in the provinces, served not only to designate the most extremist participants in the occupations movement, but also tended to evoke an image of vandals, thieves or hoodlums.

We do not think we avoided making mistakes. It is again for the benefit of comrades who may later find themselves in similar situations that we will enumerate them here.

On Rue Gay-Lussac, where we came together in small spontaneously assembled groups, each of these groups met several dozen acquaintances or people who merely knew us by sight and came to talk with us. Then everyone, in the wonderful disorder found in that “liberated neighborhood,” split up toward one or another “front line” or battle preparation long before the inevitable police attack. As a result, not only did all those people remain more or less isolated, but even our own groups were unable to keep in contact with each other most of the time. It was a serious mistake on our part not to have immediately asked everyone to remain grouped together. In less than an hour a group acting in this way would have inevitably snowballed and gathered together everyone we knew among the barricade fighters — among whom each of us ran into more friends than one chances to meet in Paris in a whole year. In this way we could have formed a band of two or three hundred people who knew each other and acted together, which was precisely what was most lacking in that dispersed fight. Of course, the vastly unequal forces (there were more than three times as many police surrounding the area as rioters, to say nothing of their superior arms) would have doomed this struggle to defeat in any case. But such a group would have made possible a certain freedom of maneuver, either by counterattacking at some spot or by extending the barricades to the east of Rue Mouffetard (an area rather poorly controlled by the police until very late) in order to open a path of retreat for all those who were caught in the dragnet (several hundred escaped only by chance, thanks to the precarious refuge of the École Normale Supérieure).

In and with the Sorbonne Occupation Committee we did virtually everything we could have done, considering the conditions and hurriedness of the moment. We cannot be reproached for not having done more to alter the architecture of that dismal edifice, which we didn’t even have the time to scout out. It is true that a chapel remained there (closed), but our posters — and also Riesel in his statement in the general assembly on May 14 — had appealed to the occupiers to destroy it as soon as possible. As for “Radio Sorbonne,” it had no transmitter so we cannot be blamed for not having used it. It goes without saying that we neither considered nor prepared for setting the building on fire on May 17, as was rumored at that time following some obscure slanders on the part of certain leftist groups: the date alone suffices to show how ill-advised such a project would have been. Nor did we spread ourselves thin in routine details, however useful we may recognize them to have been. It is thus a pure fantasy when Jean Maitron states, “The Sorbonne restaurant and cooking . . . remained under the control of the ‘situationists’ until June. There were very few students among them, but many unemployed youth” (La Sorbonne par elle-même, Éditions Ouvrières, 1968, p. 114).(5) We must, however, reproach ourselves for this error: from May 16, 5:00 p.m. on, the comrades in charge of sending the leaflets and declarations of the Occupation Committee to be printed replaced the signature “Sorbonne Occupation Committee” with “Occupation Committee of the People’s Free Sorbonne University” and no one thought anything about it. This was certainly a lapse of some importance because in our eyes the Sorbonne was of interest only as a building seized by the revolutionary movement, and this signature gave the impression that we acknowledged it as still having some legitimacy as a university (albeit a “people’s free” one) — something we despise in any case and which was all the more unfortunate to seem to accept at such a time. A less important slip was made on May 17 when a leaflet composed by rank-and-file workers who had come from the Renault factory was circulated with the “Occupation Committee” signature. The Occupation Committee was quite right to provide these workers with means of expression without any censorship, but it should have been specified that this text was written by them and merely printed by the Occupation Committee; all the more so as these workers, while calling for a continuation of the “marches on Renault,” still accepted the unions’ phony argument according to which the factory gates should be kept closed so that the police could not derive from their being open a pretext or advantage for an attack.

The CMDO forgot to add to each of its publications the note “Printed by striking workers,” which certainly would have been exemplary and in perfect accord with the theories those publications expressed, and which would have been an excellent reply to the usual union printshop label. A more serious error: while an excellent use was made of telephones, we completely overlooked the possibility of using the teletype machines, which would have enabled us to get in touch with a number of occupied buildings and factories in France and to transmit information throughout Europe. In particular, we neglected the network of astronomical observatories, which was accessible to us at least by way of the occupied Meudon Observatory.

But everything considered, we do not see how the SI’s activities during the May movement merit any significant blame.

Let us now list the main results of the occupations movement so far. In France this movement was defeated, but in no way crushed. This is probably its most notable point and the one that presents the greatest practical interest. Probably never before has such a severe social crisis ended without a repression crippling the revolutionary current for a substantial period — a seemingly inevitable price that previously had to be paid for each moment of radical historical experience. Although of course numerous foreigners were administratively expelled from the country and several hundred rioters were convicted in the following months for various “common law” misdemeanors, there was no political repression properly speaking. (Although more than a third of the members of the CMDO had been arrested during the various confrontations, none of them were caught in this later roundup, their retreat at the end of June having been very successfully carried out.)(6) All the political leaders who did not manage to escape arrest at the end of the crisis were set free after a few weeks and not one of them was ever brought to trial. The government was forced to accept this new retreat merely to obtain a semblance of a calm reopening of the universities and a semblance of exams in fall 1968; this important concession was obtained as early as August by the mere pressure of the Medical Students Action Committee.

The depth of the revolutionary crisis has seriously thrown off balance “what was frontally attacked . . . the well-functioning capitalist economy” (Viénet), not so much, of course, because of the wage increases, which the economy can easily bear, nor even because of the total paralysis of production for several weeks, but primarily because the French bourgeoisie has lost confidence in the stability of the country. This — in conjunction with other aspects of the present international monetary crisis — led to the massive exodus of capital and the crisis of the franc as early as November 1968 (the French reserves of foreign currency dropped from 30 billion francs in May 1968 to 18 billion one year later). After the delayed devaluation of 8 August 1969 Le Monde began to notice that “May 1968 ‘killed’ the franc as well as the General.”

The “Gaullist” regime was nothing but a trivial detail in this general calling into question of modern capitalism. Nevertheless, de Gaulle’s power also received a mortal blow in May. We have previously shown how it was objectively easy for de Gaulle to reestablish himself in June, since the real struggle had already been lost elsewhere. But in spite of his reinstatement, de Gaulle, as the leader of the state that had survived the occupations movement, was unable to wipe out the blemish of having been the leader of the state that had been subjected to the scandal of such a movement’s existence. De Gaulle, who in his personal style only served as a cover for anything that might occur — specifically, for the normal modernization of capitalist society — had claimed to reign by prestige. In May his prestige was subjected to a definitive humiliation that was subjectively felt by him as well as objectively expressed by the ruling class and the voters who always support that class. The French bourgeoisie is now searching for a more rational form of political power, one that is less capricious and dreamy and that will be more intelligent in defending it from the new threats whose emergence so dumbfounded it. De Gaulle wanted to wipe out the persistent nightmare, “the last phantoms of May,” by winning on 27 April 1969 the referendum announced on 24 May 1968 but canceled that very night by a riot. He sensed that his tottering “stable power” had not recovered its equilibrium and he imprudently insisted on being quickly reassured by a factitious rite of reaffirmation of his cause. The demonstrators’ slogans on 13 May 1968 [e.g. “Ten years is enough”] turned out to be right: de Gaulle’s reign did not endure to its eleventh anniversary;(7) not, of course, due to the bureaucratic or pseudoreformist opposition, but because after the Gay-Lussac uprising everyone realized that Rue Gay-Lussac opened on to all the factories of France.

A generalized disorder, calling in question the very foundations of all institutions, has taken hold of most of the university departments and especially the high schools. If the state, limiting itself to the most vital sectors, succeeded in largely reestablishing the functioning of the scientific disciplines and the elite professional schools, elsewhere the 1968-1969 academic year has been a complete loss and diplomas have been devalued, though they are still far from being despised by the mass of students. Such a situation is in the long run incompatible with the normal functioning of an advanced industrial country, triggering a fall into underdevelopment by creating a qualitative bottleneck in secondary education. Even if the extremist current has in reality only retained a narrow base in the student milieu, this seems to be enough to maintain a process of continual deterioration: the occupation and sacking of the rectorate of the Sorbonne at the end of January, and a number of serious incidents since then, have shown that merely maintaining some sort of pseudoeducation constitutes a subject of considerable concern for the forces of order.

In the factories, where the workers have learned how to carry out wildcat strikes and where there is an implantation of radical groups more or less consciously opposed to the unions, the sporadic agitation has, despite the efforts of the bureaucrats, led to numerous partial strikes that easily paralyze the increasingly concentrated enterprises in which the different operations become increasingly interdependent. These tremors do not allow anyone to forget that the ground under the enterprises is still shaky, and that in May the modern forms of exploitation revealed both their interrelatedness and their new fragility.

With the deterioration of the old orthodox Stalinism (discernable even in the losses of the CGT in recent union elections), it is now the turn of the little leftist parties to lose their credibility through bungling maneuvers: almost all of them would have liked to mechanically recommence the May process in order to repeat their errors there. They easily infiltrated what remained of the Action Committees, which soon faded away. The little leftist parties are themselves splitting into numerous hostile tendencies, each one holding firm to some stupidity that prides itself on excluding all the stupidities of its rivals. The radical elements have become more numerous since May, but are still scattered — particularly in the factories. Because they have not yet proved capable of organizing a genuinely autonomous practice, the coherence they have to acquire is still distorted and obscured by old illusions, or verbosity, or sometimes even by an unhealthy unilateral “pro-situationist” admiration. Their only path, which is obviously going to be long and difficult, has nevertheless been mapped out: the formation of councilist organizations of revolutionary workers, federating with each other on the sole basis of total democracy and total critique. Their first theoretical task will be to combat and refute in practice the last form of ideology the old world will set against them: councilist ideology. At the end of the crisis the Toulouse-based Révolution Internationale group expressed a preliminary crude form of this ideology, quite simply proposing (we don’t know, moreover, to whom) that workers councils should be elected above the general assemblies, whose only task would thus be to ratify the acts of this wise revolutionary neoleadership. This Lenino-Yugoslavian monstrosity, since adopted by Lambert’s “Trotskyist Organization,” is almost as bizarre nowadays as the Gaullists’ use of the phrase “direct democracy” when they were infatuated with referendary “dialogue.” The next revolution will recognize as councils only sovereign rank-and-file general assemblies, in the enterprises and the neighborhoods, whose delegates are answerable to those assemblies alone and always subject to recall by them. A councilist organization will never defend any other goal: it must translate into acts a dialectic that supersedes the rigid, one-sided extremes of spontaneism, on one hand, and of openly or covertly bureaucratized organization on the other. It must be an organization advancing revolutionarily toward the revolution of the councils; an organization that neither disperses at the first moment of declared struggle nor institutionalizes itself.

This perspective is not limited to France, it is international. The total significance of the occupations movement must be understood everywhere. Already in 1968 its example touched off, or pushed to higher levels, severe disorders throughout Europe and in America and Japan. The most remarkable immediate consequences of May were the bloody revolt of the Mexican students, which was able to be crushed due to its relative isolation, and the Yugoslavian students’ movement against the bureaucracy and for proletarian self-management, which partially drew in the workers and put Tito’s regime in great danger. What finally came to the rescue of the latter, more than the concessions proclaimed by the ruling class, was the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia, which allowed the Yugoslavian regime to rally the country around itself by brandishing the menace of an invasion by a foreign bureaucracy. The hand of the new International is beginning to be denounced by the police of several countries, who believe they have discovered the directives of French revolutionaries in Mexico during summer 1968 and in the anti-Russian demonstration in Prague on 28 March 1969. The Franco government explicitly justified its recourse to martial law at the beginning of this year by stating that the university agitation in Spain risked developing into a general crisis of the French type.

England has been experiencing wildcat strikes for a long time, and one of the main goals of the Labour government is obviously to succeed in prohibiting them; but it was unquestionably this first experience of a general wildcat strike that led Wilson to strive with such urgency and determination to obtain repressive legislation against this type of strike this year. This careerist didn’t hesitate to risk his career, and even the very unity of the Labour party-union bureaucracy, on the proposed “Barbara Castle Act,”(8) for if the unions are the direct enemies of wildcat strikes, they are nevertheless afraid of losing all importance by losing all control over the workers once the right to intervene against the real forms of class struggle is left solely to the state, without having to pass through their own mediation. On May 1 the antiunion strike of 100,000 dockers, printers and metal workers against the threat of this law was the first political strike in England since 1926: it is most fitting that this form of struggle has reappeared against a Labour government. Wilson had to lose face by giving up his dearest project and handing back to the union police the task of repressing the 95% of work stoppages in England now caused by wildcat strikes. According to Le Monde (30 August 1969), however, the recent victory of the eight-week wildcat strike of the Port Talbot blast-furnace workers “has proved that the TUC leadership is incapable of fulfilling this role.”

It is easy to recognize throughout the world the new tone with which a radical critique is pronouncing its declaration of war on the old society — from the graffiti on the walls of England and Italy to the extremist Mexican group Caos, which during the summer of 1968 called for the sabotage of the Olympics and of “the society of spectacular consumption”; from the acts and publications of the Acratas in Madrid to the shout of a Wall Street demonstration (AFP, April 12), “Stop the Show,” in that American society whose “decline and fall” we already pointed out in 1965 and whose very officials now admit that it is “a sick society.”

In Italy the SI was able to make a certain contribution to the revolutionary current as early as the end of 1967, when the occupation of the University of Turin served as the starting point for a vast movement; both by way of the publication of some basic texts (badly translated by publishers Feltrinelli and De Donato, but nevertheless rapidly sold out) and by way of the radical action of a few individuals (although the present Italian section of the SI was formally constituted only in January 1969). The slow evolution of the Italian crisis over the last twenty-two months — which has thus become known as “the creeping May” — first got bogged down in 1968 in the forming of a “Student Movement” that was much more backward even than in France, as well as being isolated — virtually the sole exemplary exception being the joint occupation of the city hall of Orgosolo, Sardinia, by students, shepherds and workers. The workers’ struggles also began slowly, but grew more serious in 1969 in spite of the efforts of the Stalinist party and the unions, who worked to fragment the threat by allowing one-day national strikes by category or one-day general strikes by province. At the beginning of April the Battipaglia insurrection, followed by the prison revolts in Turin, Milan and Genoa, pushed the crisis to a higher level and reduced even more the bureaucrats’ margin of maneuver. In Battipaglia the workers kept control of the town for twenty-four hours after the police opened fire, seizing arms, laying siege to the police holed up in their barracks and demanding their surrender, and blocking roads and trains. Even after the massive reinforcements of state troopers had regained control of the town and communications routes, an embryo of a council still existed in Battipaglia, claiming to replace the town government and expressing the inhabitants’ direct power over their own affairs. If the demonstrations in support of Battipaglia throughout Italy were regimented by the bureaucrats and remained Platonic, the revolutionary elements of Milan at least succeeded in violently attacking the bureaucrats and the police and ravaging the downtown area of the city. On this occasion the Italian situationists took up the French methods in the most appropriate manner.

In the following months the “wildcat” movements at Fiat and among the workers of the North have demonstrated, more clearly than has the complete collapse of the government, how close Italy is to a modern revolutionary crisis. The turn taken in August by the wildcat strikes at Pirelli in Milan and Fiat in Turin point to the imminence of a total confrontation.

The reader will easily understand the main reason we have dealt here both with the general significance of the new revolutionary movements and with their relation with the theses of the SI. Until recently, even those who readily recognized an interest in some points of our theory regretted that we ourselves made the whole truth of that theory contingent upon the return of social revolution, which they considered an incredible “hypothesis.” Conversely, various activists with no real contact with reality, but taking pride in their eternal allergy to any relevant theory, posed the stupid question: “What is the SI’s practical activity?” Lacking the slightest comprehension of the dialectical process through which the real movement “meets its own unknown theory,” they all wanted to disregard what they believed to be an unarmed critique. Now this critique is arming itself. The “sunburst that in a flash reveals the features of the new world”(9) was seen in France in that month of May, with the intermingled red and black flags of workers’ democracy. The followup will appear everywhere. If we have to a certain extent marked the return of this movement with our name, it is not in order to hold on to any of it or to derive any authority from it. From now on we are sure of a satisfactory consummation of our activities: the SI will be superseded.

September 1969



1. Allusion to the 7% wage increase offered in the Grenelle Accords.

2. “In the name of the Enragés, René Riesel immediately demanded the expulsion of two observers from the administration and of the several Stalinists who were present. An anarchist spokesman and regular collaborator of Cohn-Bendit asserted, ‘The Stalinists who are here this evening are no longer Stalinists.’ The Enragés immediately left the meeting in protest against this cowardly illusion” (Viénet, p. 34).

3. Besides numerous SI, Enragé and CMDO texts, Viénet’s book reproduces a critique of the health-care system by the National Center of Young Doctors, a critique of advertising by a group of ad designers, a manifesto against the commercial manipulation of soccer by the Soccer Players Action Committee, and leaflets by a Yugoslavian woman, by the North African Action Committee, by the strike committee of a large department store, by airline workers, by postal workers, and by several revolutionary groups.
     Roger Grégoire and Fredy Perlman’s booklet Worker-Student Action Committees: France May ’68 (Black and Red, 1969) gives a good first-hand account of some of other committees that the SI was not aware of at the time.

4. See, for example, the opening paragraphs of The Bad Days Will End (1962).

5. La Sorbonne par elle-même (Maitron et al.): This book included some more serious misrepresentations regarding the situationists, including reproductions of CMDO texts that were knowingly falsified (critiques of the Stalinists deleted with no indication of the omissions, completely fabricated passages sympathetic to the CGT added, etc.). Following an account of their personal confrontation with Maitron upon his refusal to make a written apology for these misrepresentations, the situationists stated: “In our opinion, the number-one objective for the revolutionary movement that is presently taking shape—even more important and urgent than elaborating a consistent theoretical critique or linking up with democratic rank-and-file committees in the factories or paralyzing the universities—is giving practical support for an insistence on truth and nonfalsification. This is the precondition and the beginning of all the rest. Whoever falsifies must be discredited, boycotted, spit on. When it is a matter of systems of falsification (as in the case of Stalinist bureaucrats or of bourgeois) it is obviously those systems that must be destroyed by a large-scale social and political struggle. But this very struggle must create its own conditions: when one is dealing with individuals or groups aiming to establish themselves anywhere in the revolutionary current, one must not let them get away with anything. By maintaining this insistence, the movement will fundamentally smash all the conditions of falsification that have accompanied and brought about its disappearance for the last half century. As we see it, all revolutionaries must now recognize it as their immediate task to denounce and discourage, by all means and whatever the price, those who continue to falsify” (“L’historien Maitron,” Internationale Situationniste #12, pp. 89-90).

6. The Enragés, situationists and other CMDO members who were most directly implicated in the revolt escaped to Belgium for a few weeks until the momentary repression blew over.

7. Although he temporarily survived the May 1968 revolt, de Gaulle ended up resigning less than a year later after losing an April 1969 referendum.

8. An act proposed by Barbara Castle (UK Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity) that would have restricted strikes and curbed the power of the unions. Due to popular resistance it was not passed into law, but certain of its provisions were later enacted under Thatcher.

9. The quotation is from the Preface to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Second and final part of “The Beginning of an Era.” The original text, “Le commencement d’une époque,” appeared in Internationale Situationniste #12 (Paris, September 1969). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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[May 1968 Documents

[May 1968 Graffiti]

[Other Situationist Texts]




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