THE LEFT-WING ALTERNATIVE -
What has May '68 got to do with anything these days, you might ask? Where exactly is the significance? Well, if you have to ask you'll never know, as they say. The Paris Commune of 1871? The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917? The Spanish Revolution of 1936? The Hungarian Revolution of 1956? Are these all just meaningless dates and events to you?
Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his brother Gabriel were two of the great agitators around the events of May 1968 in France and their report from the front-line - Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative - written shortly after those days makes for essential reading for anyone who takes their revolutions seriously.
There are lessons to be learned here, for sure. The first being who not to trust at times of great social upheaval, that being - as famously demonstrated during the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution - political Parties of any stripe but particularly those who profess to be the vanguard. Remember Krondstadt? There are always those who in the name of revolution will betray the revolution, and that's pretty much what happened in France.
The students had taken over and occupied their factories (as in their universities) and were urging the proletariat to do likewise - and the proletariat were taking heed. The country had ground to a halt, the barricades were up, and the Gaullist government was on the ropes. It wasn't just a pay rise or some such similar demand that was being sought at the time either. No, the students of France were seeking the complete overthrow of the capitalist system - and the proletariat were agreeing. They were being reasonable - they were demanding the impossible for they knew that under the paving stones lay the beach and that those who make half a revolution dig their own graves.
But then into the breach stepped the French Communist Party and the assembly of Trade Union leaders who brokered a deal leading to all the workers abandoning their strikes and heading back to work. Without the support of the workers, the student revolutionaries were left isolated and soon the whole uprising crumbled. The streets were swept of the rubble thrown during the riots, the universities were reclaimed, and much to the relief of the bourgeoisie, life returned to as it was.
So, another lesson to be learned from the Cohn-Bendit book is that for any revolution to succeed it must be a many-headed hydra so that if one head is cut off, there would be others in its place. The students knew that without the support and participation of the working class, their own struggle would be brought to heel, being either crushed or bought out with concessions.
It's here, however, that a paradox comes into play. Cohn-Bendit insists that revolution can only spring spontaneously from the proletariat and cites the failure of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917 to keep pace with the masses as a good example of this. Cohn-Bendit argues that Trotsky was actually one step behind the proletariat when the revolution was instigated and only once the masses had started to move of their own accord did the Bolsheviks take over.
Trotsky, of course, would deny this and say that the revolution didn't come from nowhere and that it was his Party's influence that started the whole ball rolling: "Those nameless, austere statesmen of the factory and street did not fall out of the sky," as Trotsky put it "They had to be educated." By his Party, obviously.
With the Bolshevik take-over, the revolution was centralised leading to every subsequent action being for the benefit and preservation of the Party rather than for the actual furtherance of the revolution. The masses were hamstrung and any attempt at reigniting the original aims of the revolution such as by the sailors at Krondstadt and by Makhno's army in the Ukraine was repressed with extreme force.
The failure of the revolution of May '68 is laid firmly at the door of the French Communist Party and the bureaucrats of the Trade Unions. It was they, argues Cohn-Bendit, who cut off the head of the proletarian uprising. It was they who betrayed the will of those they were meant to represent. The problem being, however, that if the proletariat are the only ones able to instigate and drive forward a revolution, then they are also the only ones able to allow that revolution to be taken over by those who would ultimately betray it. Why then in France (and in Russia too) did they allow the supplanting of one hierarchy for just another whose concern was to preserve a system maintaining (for them) either political, administrative or economic domination - or even all three? Why, after going for revolution were the proletariat unable to take the next logical step: to run the economy by themselves as free and equal partners. To run their own lives without bosses and bureaucrats. Or as Makhno put it: to live without authorities, without parasites, and without control. Or as written on the walls of Paris: to live without dead time.
Cohn-Bendit goes on to say that what might appear to be ideological submissiveness and servility in the proletariat must not be condemned, which serves no purpose, nor deplored, which helps to engender a moral superiority, nor accepted, which can only lead to complete inaction - but that it be fought by an active and conscious assault, if necessary by a minority, in every sphere of daily life. Confidence must be engendered but as a proviso adds: "The revolutionary cannot and must not be a leader. Revolutionaries are a militant minority drawn from various social strata, people who band together because they share an ideology, and who pledge themselves to struggle against oppression, to dispel the mystification of the ruling classes and the bureaucrats, to proclaim that the workers can only defend themselves and build a socialist society by taking their fate into their own hands, believing that political maturity comes only from revolutionary struggle and direct action."
In other words, the revolutionary must encourage the workers to struggle on their own behalf and show how their every struggle can be used to drive a wedge into capitalist society. The revolutionary must act as an agent of the people and not as a leader.
As Marx declared: "The emancipation of the workers must be brought about by the workers themselves."
And that, comrade, is the truth as shared by Cohn-Bendit in this book and the lesson to be learned.