communization, the history of a theory of the future

[pt 2 of a series, begun here]

The other thing I wanted to say about communization I hinted at already in the last post, but it deserves its own exposition. Communization remains relevant for us not because it is the thought of the revolutionary wave of ’68, but because it is the thought which has most attempted to come to terms with the failure of ’68, and particularly those theories it pushed to the front. This is difficult for US readers, or at least it was for me, because we are used to thinking of May 68 and its global complement as a kind of triumph, neither a victory nor a culmination, but the opening of a door to the future, or at least sexy and fun if a little embarrassing, like a Maoist-period Godard film.

The communization tendency is interesting because it regarded 1968 from the start as a failure, and one that in fact put to the test, and found desperately lacking, the most advanced theory of its day, the late phase of the Situationist International. It was, as they learned through participating in it and thinking through the consequences of their participation, “the peak of a shockwave which died away in 72-74.” But such knowledge came with a price, apparently, and the history of the tendency in the 70s shows participants struggling with the weight of an isolating pessimism while the rest of the left staggered forward obliviously. It did not see itself, or so it appears in the documents we are left, at the head of a glorious new movement, but instead faced with a series of puzzling conundra which are only now being resolved in theory, as attempts to overcome them in practice are more or less our new tactical repertoire and strategic horizon. This is the reason why this thought is still alive for us today, whereas the other offspring of 1968 are largely sterile exercises in Althusserian blackboard diagrams. I quote here a long passage from a reflection on this period, composed in the late 1970s, which gives the unique flavor of this critique:

The explosion did not take place in either the most modern sectors of the industrialised world, or those most in difficulty, but where the boom over the previous twenty years was least well adapted to national conditions. Between 1954 and 1974 the proportion of wage workers in the French population rose from 62% to 81% (the increase above allaffecting those employees, technicians and middle managers who made up the new middle classes). We witnessed the fusion of violent workers demands and of anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive student aspirations which soon extended to a good part of the new middle classes. The movement was also anti-cultural in that culture formed a safety deposit box and was the opposite of creativity. It thus revived the refusal of art and culture which had appeared about 1914-18.

May 68 was more than a split between the trade unions and parties on one side, and a great many workers on the other. It was also a demand for existence, which in the   absence in practice of a social breakdown, appeared more as expression than action.      People wanted to communicate, to speak, to say that which could not be done. The rejection of the past didn't succeed in giving itself a content, and thus a present. The    slogans : « I believe in the reality of my desires », « Under the pavingstones, the beach    », referred to a different possibility, but one which, in order to become possible,       presupposed . . . a revolution. In its absence, this demand could only become adaptation or madness. The themes of May took the form of exhortations, replacing 19th century guilt with the imperative of pleasure.

Indeed, aside from a weak minority, the workers, the bourgeoisie, most of the «protestors » and the State, in short everybody, acted as if there was an “implicit pact” prohibiting everyone from going too far. Sign of its limit : people did not dare, did not even want to make a revolution, not even begin it. Sign of strength : people refused the political game of a pseudo-revolution, since a real one could only be something total. Even in the rue Gay-Lussac the violence remained well on this side of the working class violence before 1914, or that seen in the United States in the Thirties. The confrontations between workers and trade unions were less brutal than in the past, for example at Renault in 1947.

In the factories in 1968 one hardly found the festive atmosphere of 1936. People felt that something had happened which could go further but they avoided doing so. The atmosphere of gravity which reigned was coupled with a resentment against the unions, a convenient scapegoat, whereas they were only able to keep control through the behaviour of the rank and file. The gaiety was elsewhere, in the streets. This is why May 68 could neither reproduce, or lead to, a revolutionary return during the years which followed. The movement generated a reformism which fed on the neutralisation of its most virulent aspects. History doesn't pass the dish around a second time.

Knowledge of this “implicit pact,” knowledge of the fact that 1968 had not been betrayed by unions, or defeated by the state, or weakened by reactionaries, but hollowed out from within, was a difficult weight to bear, especially when everyone else insisted on seeing things as being on the upswing, imagining themselves swept up toward the horizon by the wind from the east. Here is what they are able to see which others can’t in the struggles of their time:

Bizarrely, at a time when people spoke so much of management, one saw that the workers disassociated themselves from all strike administration. Abandoning control of the factories to the trade unions was a sign of weakness, but also of the fact that they were conscious that the problem lay elsewhere. Five years later, in 1973, in a big strike at Laval, workers purely and simply left the factory for three weeks. Like the « de-politicization » of which so much has been said, this loss of interest in the company, in work and in its reorganisation, is ambivalent, and cannot be interpreted except in relation to everything else. Communism was certainly present in 1968, but only in relief, in negative. At Nantes in 1968, and later at SEAT at Barcelona (1971) or Quebec (1972), strikers would take over districts or cities, go as far as seizing radio stations, but would make nothing of it : the self-organisation of proletarians « is possible, but at the same time, they have nothing to organise » (Théorie communiste, n° 4, 1981, p. 21).

In the light of hindsight, they look sane while others appear mad, however, for the questions they posed were so simple and practical that it is a wonder no one else did. Why, if communism is simply the self-organization of the workers, did the workers not simply seize what was ready to hand? Why the indifference to the practical affairs of revolution:

The leaflet Que faire ?, about 100,000 copies of which were republished and distributed, recommended what the movement needed to do to go further, or even just continue : take a number of simple measures which broke with capitalist logic, in order that the strike could show its capacity to make society function differently; meet social needs (which would rally the hesitant and the middle class who were worried by the violence – the product of a deadlock, an impotent reaction in the face of an impasse) through free provision of transport, health care, food, through the collective management of distribution centres, through striking against payments (rent, taxes, bills); and show that the bourgeoisie and the state are useless.

Communism was only present in 1968 as a vision. Even the workers hostile to the trade unions didn't take the next step, the revolutionary elements among them being the exception rather than the rule. An additional proof of weakness was the confusion surrounding the rally at Charléty at the end of May. Charléty was a political attempt to go further, through an extension of the social movement at the level of state power. Charléty was where many of the leftists were to be found, but also the left of the trade unions (in particular the CFDT), and where we also saw a celebrity who people had recently wanted to make a national hero, the De Gaulle of the left : Mendès-France. Charléty was the peak of the consciousness and political realism which the « May movement » gave evidence of. On one side, the dream : councils. On the other, the reality : a real reforming government, where many saw themselves playing the role of Lenin to this Mendès-Kerensky. We can smile about it today, but if the Mendès solution had carried the day, many protestors would have supported it. One year later, two young workers who produced a leaflet with La Vieille Taupe recalling the revolutionary scope of May 68, stated : « We will not forget Charléty ». . . In 1981, the election of a Socialist President, Mitterand, would finally realise the hopes of Charléty."

Again, they are asking questions others simply would not. It is also the case that, in my view, the writers involved with the communization tendency had not fully developed their understanding of this “implicit pact.” They saw it, they recognized it, they noted some of its implications for theory, but they had by no means fully worked out those implications, much less worked them up into a convincing argument. In fact, it’s my view that it has only been in the 2000s and 2010s that such an argument has emerged, in the second period of the theory of communization. But the reason for this continuity indicates a continuity in the real world, in history as much as in theory. There is no solution in theory that isn’t also a solution, in practice, at least any solution that matters.  Communization returns as a thematic, does not simply go away with the 1970s, because the problematic this current identified in 1968 continues to reimpose itself with every subsequent struggle, thus inviting an attempt to formulate anew a better response.

In the document I just quoted, “Re-collecting our past,” by the collective La Banquise, which included Dauve but also offered a critique of the articles he had written for Mouvement Communiste (which we know as Eclipse and Reemergence) the problematic is phrased as a curious blend of acceptance and refusal:

In the will to go on mass strike there lay a refusal; in the manner of conducting that strike, and in particular of abandoning it to the trade unions, only in order to rebel   against them at the end when they had scuppered it, there lay an acceptance.

I recognize this blend of acceptance and refusal in most significant struggles of the 50 years since, upending our notions of reform, insurrection, social movement, and revolution. This post can’t possibly summarize the full answer to this problematic—that’s for another day, or a formal essay—and by all means there is still much that remains unanswered in the global 68, much that can only be answered with the practical overcoming of the impasses such a moment leaves.

It’s intriguing to me, though, and I need to know a little more about the entanglement of these groups to say much, that La Banquise quote Theorie Communiste from 1981, right before they attempt to explain the mystery that 68 presented. This is significant because it is TC, in developing an articulation distinct from Gilles Dauve, that in my view begins to work through a possible response to this conundrum, though most of essays that best do so are from the 2000s or later.

All the current problems of the apprehension of the revolution, which one finds to a greater or lesser extent in all the theorisations that are made, stem from the fact that the proletariat can no longer oppose Capital with what is within the capitalist mode of production, or rather, can no longer make the revolution the triumph of that which exists . . . » n(Théorie Communiste, n° 4, 1981, p. 37)

It it a gnomic formulation, and Theorie Communiste will hardly become clearer as they improve upon it. But if we want to pass into the open plain, we will have to cross those Alps. I leave that for another post.