Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Obsolete minority action (2001)

Book Review from the November 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Obsolete Communism. The Left-Wing Alternative. By Daniel & Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. AK Press, 2001.

Books written by participants in events are always interesting if only because they are part of the documentary evidence as to what happened. The book by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was prominent in the student movement which led to the "May events" in France in 1968, and his brother Gabriel (who wrote the theoretical parts) is no exception. Written in 1968 shortly after the events, and now republished by AK Press, it gives a good insight into what many of the radicalised students thought.

The Cohn-Bendits called for a revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system. They were therefore implacably opposed to Leninism and its concept of a centralised vanguard to lead the working class. A large part of the book in fact is devoted to exposing, on the one hand, the French Communist Party (PCF) and its claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the French working class and, on the other, how the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, introduced state capitalism into Russia, with their vanguard as the new managerial ruling class imposing one-man management in the state-owned factories and bloodily suppressing working-class resistance in Krondstadt in 1921. In fact the English title does not convey the full anti-Leninist significance of a literal translation of the original French title – Leftism: Remedy for the Senile Disorder of Communism – which was an obvious play on the title of Lenin's 1920 pamphlet Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

The rest of the book is devoted to describing and analysing the events themselves – student occupation of the universities, street battles, followed by a general strike with many factory occupations involving at its height some 10 million workers – and including a good analysis of the role of universities under capitalism (to train cadres to run industry and the state on behalf of the capitalist class).

A revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system? Implacable opposition to Leninism and all its works? We can go along with that; in fact it's what we have always said and done. But that's as far as our agreement can go. The Cohn-Bendits envisaged "the revolution" as involving the overthrow of the government by mass street demonstrations and the occupation, and then the running, of workplaces by the workers. They argued that this could be sparked off by a "militant minority" provoking the state to drop its mask, as the students did by occupying the universities and provoking the police to try to dislodge them. In fact, they imagined that they nearly sparked off such a revolution, if only the students and others had taken over the finance and education ministries on the night of 24 May and if only the workers had had the self-confidence not just to occupy their workplaces but to have restarted production under their own control and management.

If only. Such a scenario would only have had any chance of working if workers were already socialist-minded; but they weren't. This is not to say that the workers in France in 1968 were not discontented, nor that they should not have gone on strike. But it was discontent with their treatment under capitalism, not with capitalism as such.

The Gaullist regime, installed in 1958 following a mutiny by the army in Algeria, had imposed a virtual wage freeze for ten years and the employers had managed their businesses in a particularly authoritarian way. The PCF and the trade union federation it controlled, the CGT, tried to keep the issue as one of economic demands (higher wages and benefits, more consultation of workers, etc). The Cohn-Bendits criticised them severely for this but, ironically, when the PCF did finally introduce a political element by calling for a change of government (not what the Cohn-Bendits wanted of course) they played into De Gaulle's hands. He immediately called an election on the theme "Who governs: Me or the Communists?" and got the answer he wanted.

Ironically too, although views such as those expressed here by the Cohn-Bendits got a boost, the main conclusion that most of the "militant minority" drew from the failure of May 1968 to overthrow capitalism was that this was because there hadn't been a strong enough vanguard party to direct the events. After 1968 Leninism, in the form of Trotskyism, Maoism, Castroism, Guevaraism, Ho Chi Minhism, flourished as never before and, although such views are now not as popular as they became in the 1970s, we are still suffering from this legacy.

While his brother Gabriel remained an anarchist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit eventually abandoned the claim to be a revolutionary to become an open reformist. He now sits as a Green Party member of the European Parliament. Clearly he was wrong to have gone reformist, but at least he now recognises that a "militant minority" cannot provoke a non-socialist-minded working class into carrying out a socialist revolution.
Adam Buick