Monday, September 07, 2020

1968 and all that

On April 6, 2018, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion, Fifty Years of 1968, as the opening plenary of its 10th International Convention, 1918–2018: A Century of Counterrevolution, held in Chicago. 
Speaking at the event were Abdul Alkalimat, professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champagne, and author of numerous books, including Malcolm X for Beginners; Joseph Estes, a member of Platypus and of the Campaign for a Socialist Party; Johnny Mercer, a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and an artist working in Chicago; and Mitchel Cohen, pamphleteer, poet, and founder of the Red Balloon Collective at SUNY Stony Brook in 1969. 

What follows is an edited transcript of Comrade Mercer's contribution.

Johnny Mercer: I am here as a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and a practicing artist. I wouldn’t be making the kind of art that I am if it weren’t for the Situationists. I have a lot of sympathy for the Situationists’ ideas as an artist—though not so much as a member of the SPGB. I'm basically going to take a slightly different format than the other speakers and provide a timeline of events. I am going to start off introducing the SPGB, then I am going to go into the birth of the Situationist International, and then go to May 1968 in France.
In 1904, the Socialist Party of Great Britain is founded as a split from the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF), in order to oppose the reformers of the time, and breaking with the self-appointed leader of the SDF, H. M. Hyndman. One basic feature of the SPGB is that it is a leaderless organization. We believe, like Marx, that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. Secondly, that socialism is a worldwide moneyless, stateless society based on production for human need. Thirdly, that the working class should use whatever political power is available to them to conquer the state and take state power away from the bourgeoisie. In other words, although we are a leaderless organization, we are not an anarchist organization. Some people have jokingly referred to us as the political wing of anarchism, which is not an entirely unfair assessment.
Now, I’ll move ahead to the birth of the Situationist International and the lead-up to May 1968 in France. In 1950, during Easter mass in Notre Dame, a group calling themselves the Letterists walk into the cathedral disguised as monks to announce “Dieu est mort”—“God is dead.” Their sermon lasts about five minutes before they are almost lynched by the congregation. They save themselves by giving themselves up to class traitors, that is, the French police of the time. So, the Letterists were the first group to understand the power of graffiti, and they come up with slogans like “free the passions,” “never work,” and others, many of which would resurface in May 1968.
Hungary is invaded by Soviet forces in 1956, a military action that Sartre and others denounce. Many intellectuals in both Britain and France break from mainstream Stalinist parties over this incident. In the summer of 1958 a slightly weird, glossy magazine named Situationist International appears in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Its first issue declared, “a mental illness has swept the planet. Penalization. Everyone is hypnotized by work and by comfort, by the garbage disposal unit, by the Left, by the bathroom, by the washing machine…. [A] rebellion against the harshness of nature has far overshot its goal[;] the liberation of man from material cares [has] become a life-destroying obsession.”[1] In the same issue, Guy Debord writes, “Art need no longer be an account of past sensations. It can become the direct organization of more highly evolved sensations. It is a question of producing ourselves, not things that enslave us.”[2] So, as Marxists, we might want to ask what the class makeup of this group was. A guy called Christopher Gray wrote something in 1974, not long after the 1968 uprisings, that described the Situationists in this way: “Most were in their late 20s and were living off the usual expedience of what was still a bohemian lifestyle. Grants, small pockets of bourgeois money, petty crime, hustling, and occasional labor in culture or elsewhere.”[3]
By 1961, three years later, the Situationist International (SI) is an international organization. They are giving a talk at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art to a mixed audience of students, intellectuals, and some ordinary working class people. When they finish their ranting, this guy asks a very reasonable question, “What is Situationism?” The SI co-founder, Guy Debord, replies, “We're not here to answer cuntish questions,” at which point all the Situationists walk out in disgust. Around the same time, they come into contact with the group around Socialisme ou Barbarie. The working class becomes less of an abstraction for them and comes to be seen as a viable means to achieve their revolutionary artistic goals. At this point they could be placed, broadly speaking, in the Council Communist tradition. They see themselves in the tradition of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising, Catalonia in 1936, and so on, in opposition both to Stalinism and capitalism.
That’s the Situationist International. So let’s move on to France, 1968. On Monday, May 6th, following a wave of student protests against issues like class discrimination, sexual repression, and university bureaucracy, there is a complete ban on demonstrations and the closure of large sections of central Paris. This announcement brings over 20,000 angry students onto the streets. The crowd begins to create barricades. According to one eyewitness, literally thousands helped—women, workers, even some people in their pajamas. Human chains carry rocks, wood, and iron. The police respond with tear gas and charge the crowd. Hundreds are arrested.
The next day, 50,000 march against police brutality, sparking a daylong battle. The police fire tear gas. Protestors responded with Molotov cocktails. Protestors at this point are chanting, “Long live the Paris commune.” By Saturday, May 11th, Situationist / Letterist slogans were being sprayed on walls. “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” “beneath the paving stones, the beach,” “all power to the imagination,” and “the most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop's head.” The French Communist Party and the major union federations, both of which had previously condemned the actions, finally called for a one-day general strike and demonstration for Monday, 13th of May.
On that day, more than a million people march through Paris. Prime Minister George Pompidou personally announced the release of prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne, which is immediately re-occupied by students who declare it the people’s university. On Tuesday, May 14th, workers lock management in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. All over France, more workers begin occupying factories and striking.
On May 17th, members of the Situationist International found the Council for the Maintenance of the Occupations (CMDO), which is a fairly successful exercise in direct democracy—at least, for two weeks. The CMDO is organized into the printing committee, which is for writing and printing their publications, using presses that have been occupied by the workers; the Liaison committee, which somehow obtained a number of cars to maintain contact with the factories where workers were on strike; and the requisitions committee, which made sure that things like toilet paper, petrol, food, money, cigarettes, and wine were never lacking.
By May 20th, 10 million workers were on strike—roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The Communist Party is back to its old tricks, urging their members to try to stop the revolt. The union tries to channel this into a struggle for higher wages. The workers demand the ousting of the government and an end to President de Gaulle’s continued attempts to run their factories. The unions negotiate a package of economic reforms. The workers reject this, refuse to go back to work, and jeer at their union leaders.
On May 24th, the Paris stock exchange is set on fire by protesters. Army generals are ready with 20,000 troops to take hold of Paris by force. The Communist Party officials start to manipulate the strikers into returning to work. On Wednesday, 30th of May, roughly half a million people march through Paris.
On the 31st of May, even as the government appeared to close to collapse, de Gaulle remains firm. He gets assurances from the military that they are still loyal to him. Because the TV workers were on strike, he has to go on the radio to announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on the 23rd of June. He institutes a state of national emergency and orders a return to work. Most workers are gradually returning to work or are ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union called off street demonstrations. The government bans a number of leftist organizations. On the 6th of June the police re-took the Sorbonne. De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held later in June, securing election with an even bigger majority than he held previously. The crisis comes to an end.
What can we take from this series of events? Most importantly, it took the working class, not the unions, not the French Communist Party, to realize any semblance of Marx’s demand for the abolition of the wages system, instead of the conservative motto, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
As an organization, the SPGB has a lot in common with the Situationists and the ideals of 1968. We have an equal hatred of Stalinists. We are critical of pseudo-socialism and state capitalist regimes like the USSR. We take seriously Marx’s statement that the emancipation of the workers has to be the work of the working class itself; we therefore reject Leninist ideas of a vanguard. However, one of the fundamental distinctions between the Situationists and the SPGB is over the proper ordering of practice and theory, of action and organization. The Situationists really emphasized this kind of sporadic, “get out on the streets and just do stuff” mentality, which is all well and good, but always seems to end in defeat. The SPGB also believes that state power cannot be left in the hands of capitalist class.
This was summed up quite well by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an important character in the Paris uprisings, in an interview he did with Sartre.[4] To paraphrase their interview, Sartre says that many people cannot understand why the ’68ers have not tried to work out a program or to give the movement a structure; people criticize the uprising for trying to smash everything, without clarifying what should be abolished and what should be put in its place. Cohn-Bendit answers that the movement’s strength is based precisely on its uncontrollable spontaneity, which gives it an impetus without using the actions it had unleashed to its own profit. I agree with that, on one level, but I think there is more to be said.
I am also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), by the way, so I am quite sympathetic to these ideas, even if I am kind of like a schizophrenic, between being an IWW member and a SPGB member. I look forward to a discussion of this, because I think it is an important topic: Do ideas precede revolution, or does revolution give birth to ideas? And, of course, the answer is dialectical.
Cde. Mercer then responds to questions and comments from the other members of the panel.
The full transcript of all the speakers can be read here
 How would you answer Cde. Mercers's question at the end?
"Do ideas precede revolution, or does revolution give birth to ideas? And, of course, the answer is dialectical."
In an online exchange with another member, Cde. Adam Buick says:
"Marx and Engels had a different opinion on this at the beginning and at end of their political lives.
In 1845 in some private notes written to clarify their ideas (not published until well after the death of both of them in 1935 under the title The German Ideology) they wrote:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
So Revolution precedes Ideas.

They still held this view during the bourgeois revolutionary wave in Europe in 1848-9 expecting as the Communist Manifesto stated that the coming bourgeois revolution in Germany would rapidly be followed by a proletarian one, ie could be turned into one.
In what can be called his political testament, as one if his last writings published in 1895 the year he died, Engels wrote an Introduction to a collection of Marx’s articles from the period The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850. In it he noted that all previous revolutions had been minority revolutions and that after the victory the minority split into two, one satisfied with what had been achieved while the other wanted to go further. Marx and himself he wrote had expected this to be repeated in 1848:
All revolutions of modern times, beginning with the great English Revolution of the seventeenth century, showed these features, which appeared inseparable from every revolutionary struggle. They appeared applicable, also, to the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation; all the more applicable, since precisely in 1848 there were but a very few people who had any idea at all of the direction in which this emancipation was to be sought. The proletarian masses themselves, even in Paris, after the victory, were still absolutely in the dark as to the path to be taken. And yet the movement was there, instinctive, spontaneous, irrepressible. Was not this just the situation in which a revolution had to succeed, led, it is true, by a minority, though this time not in the interest of the minority, but in the finest interest of the majority? If, in all the longer revolutionary periods, it was so easy to win over the great masses of the people simply by the plausible false representations of the pressing minorities, why should they be less susceptible to ideas which were the truest reflection of their economic condition, which were none other than the clear, rational expression of their needs, of needs not yet understood but merely vaguely felt by them? To be sure, this revolutionary mood of the masses had almost always, and usually very speedily, given way to lassitude or even to a change to the opposite as soon as illusion evaporated and disappointment set in. But what was involved here were not false representations, but the implementation of the most vital interests of the great majority itself, interests which, it is true, were at that time by no means clear to this great majority, but which were bound to become clear to it as their practical implementation proceeded, by their convincing obviousness. And when, as Marx showed in his third article, in the spring of 1850, the development of the bourgeois republic that arose out of the “social” Revolution of 1848 had even concentrated real power in the hands of the big bourgeoisie — monarchistically inclined as it was into the bargain — and, on the other hand, had grouped all the other social classes, peasantry as well as petty bourgeoisie, around the proletariat, so that during and after the common victory, not they but the proletariat grown wise from experience had to become the decisive factor — was there not every prospect then of turning the revolution of the minority into a revolution of the majority?“
So, still Revolution precedes Ideas.
But here’s how Engels answered his question;
History has proved us wrong, and all who thought like us.”
So, what did he conclude was now the right approach;
The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must  also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required.”
In other words, Ideas (thrown up by capitalism of course) must precede Revolution. Just what we have always argued."

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