From Établissement to Lip: On the Turns Taken by French Maoism

by Jason E. Smith on October 9, 2013

(Originally published at Viewpoint Magazine and reposted with their kind permission)


When the masses think, the intel­lec­tual dies.
—Anto­nio Negri, The Win­ter is Over

In his remark­able and still untrans­lated 1976 book Lenin, the Peas­ants, Tay­lor, Robert Lin­hart speaks of the arc of the “ela­tion of the intel­lec­tual petite bour­geoisie”: the “about-face” that unfail­ing trans­forms an ini­tial “mys­ti­cal ado­ra­tion” for the masses into “dis­gust.” Lin­hart speaks in par­tic­u­lar of the revul­sion many pre- and post-Revolution Russ­ian intel­lec­tual youth reserved for the peas­antry. He asserts that the “anti-peasant ide­o­log­i­cal offen­sive” launched by Maxim Gorky among oth­ers dur­ing the period dur­ing and just after the Civil War was noth­ing new among this petit-bourgeois layer, hav­ing its roots in the fail­ures of the late 19th cen­tury “pop­ulist” cam­paigns in the coun­try­side to fuse the young intel­lec­tu­als with the peas­ant masses. In the short run, these fail­ures pro­duced “despair and nihilist temp­ta­tions.” But in the long run, he explains, this expe­ri­ence “secreted the poi­son of a fero­ciously anti-peasant ide­ol­ogy” among sig­nif­i­cant frac­tions of the social­ist intel­li­gentsia, an ide­ol­ogy whose affec­tive tenor ranged from bit­ter­ness, to fear, to hatred. Lin­hart places par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on a text writ­ten by Gorky on the occa­sion of Lenin’s death, in which he recalls a scene from 1919 in which thou­sands of peas­ants arrived from the North of Rus­sia and squat­ted the Win­ter Palace. A detail stands out. The peas­ants, Gorky notes, went out of their way – the bath­rooms were func­tion­ing per­fectly well – to relieve them­selves in the pre­cious vases acquired and exhib­ited by the for­mer Tsars, using them as cham­ber­pots. Gorky is par­tic­u­larly taken aback by this, see­ing it as a form of “van­dal­ism” express­ing a desire to “dis­honor beau­ti­ful things,” to “defile the beau­ti­ful” – a desire con­sti­tu­tive of the Russ­ian peas­ant. Such is the mood per­vad­ing these for­mer “friends of the peo­ple”: a ter­ror before the bar­bar­ity and cru­elty of these masses who shit in the vases of Tsars.1

Lin­hart recounts this episode and ana­lyzes this affec­tive tra­jec­tory, in order to con­clude by not­ing that he him­self “wit­nessed sim­i­lar phe­nom­ena” among his com­rades in the étab­lisse­ment move­ment in France, par­tic­u­larly among those mil­i­tants who par­tic­i­pated in the first waves of this move­ment ini­ti­ated by the Union des jeunesses com­mu­nistes marxistes-léninistes in the Fall of 1967. Not all of those who entered this move­ment into pro­duc­tion – the estab­lish­ment of Marxist-Leninist intel­lec­tu­als at the heart of the French indus­trial work­ing class – per­formed this about-face. Lin­hart him­self did not. But a “bit­ter blath­er­ing minor­ity” of these ex-étab­lis expe­ri­enced just such a hatred, feed­ing an “entire anti-worker ide­ol­ogy” among “cer­tain post-68 cur­rents.”2

The Union des jeunesses com­mu­nistes marxistes-léninistes (Union of Marxist-Leninist Com­mu­nist Youth, here­after UJCml) – was orig­i­nally a French stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion formed in Decem­ber 1966. It resulted from a split within the offi­cial, Com­mu­nist Party-controlled stu­dent union, the Union of Com­mu­nist Stu­dents (UEC), by a group of stu­dents close to Louis Althusser and led by Robert Lin­hart. The first seeds of the orga­ni­za­tion were sown, how­ever, in the period just before this split, when the UEC was wracked by a strug­gle between two ten­den­cies: a Trot­sky­ist fac­tion allied with a democ­ra­tiz­ing, reformist fac­tion dubbed the “Ital­ians,” because they wanted to fol­low the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party’s democ­ra­tiz­ing exam­ple, on one side; and a fac­tion led by Lin­hart that defended the French Com­mu­nist Party (PCF) ortho­doxy on the other. After suc­cess­fully purg­ing the Ital­ians and win­ning con­trol of the UEC, this fac­tion then set its sights on that same Party ortho­doxy, under­tak­ing a pri­mar­ily the­o­ret­i­cal rec­ti­fi­ca­tion and defense of Marx­ist the­ory inspired by Althusser him­self, against per­ceived devi­a­tions and revi­sion­ism within the Party’s the­o­ret­i­cal and strate­gic frame­work. The vir­u­lence of this cam­paign led to this fac­tion being expelled from the UEC in its turn, and opened the way to the foun­da­tion of the UJCml.

The foun­da­tion of the UJCml took place dur­ing a momen­tous period. The Decem­ber 1966 for­ma­tion of the group coin­cided with the pub­li­ca­tion in that same month of an issue of the jour­nal Cahiers marxistes-léninistes, devoted to the “Great Pro­le­tar­ian Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion” that was launched in China in August of the same year. The issue included an unat­trib­uted text writ­ten by Louis Althusser with the title “On the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion.”3 In this arti­cle Althusser argued, with a sober enthu­si­asm, that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process then cur­rently under­way in China rep­re­sented an “unprece­dented” event in this his­tory of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment, an event that had nev­er­the­less been antic­i­pated by Marx, Engels and Lenin: the set­ting in motion of a cul­tural or “ide­o­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” after an ear­lier seiz­ing of the means of pro­duc­tion and state power. Under­taken in view of pro­tect­ing an ongo­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary process always threat­ened with a regres­sion that could divert it down the “cap­i­tal­ist road,” the ide­o­log­i­cal class strug­gle placed on the agenda in August of 1966 entailed the emer­gence of new forms of orga­ni­za­tion (in par­tic­u­lar the “Red Guards”) dis­tinct and in some sense even autonomous from the Party. For good rea­son: the role of these orga­ni­za­tions, accord­ing to Althusser, was to “oblige the Party to dis­tin­guish itself from the State” after a period dur­ing which these two forces under­went, per­haps ineluctably, an at least “par­tial fusion.”4 If Lenin had already, at the end of his life, seen the need to encour­age the for­ma­tion of non-party orga­ni­za­tions – such as the “Worker and Peas­ant Inspec­torate” tasked with, as Althusser puts it, “regulat[ing] the rela­tions between the Party and the State in order to avoid the pit­falls of bureau­cracy and tech­noc­racy” – it was only with the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion itself that a pro­lif­er­a­tion of mass ide­o­log­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions capa­ble of sin­gling out so-called “cap­i­tal­ist road­ers” within the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party lead­er­ship began to prac­tice this “reg­u­la­tion” on a mass scale. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion was launched in view of con­tin­u­ing and even inten­si­fy­ing class strug­gle, in a soci­ety in which the means of pro­duc­tion had been social­ized and the state sub­sumed, to the point of “fusion,” by the Com­mu­nist Party. It aimed at bring­ing that strug­gle to the heart of the Party itself. The sub­se­quent unfold­ing of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion would reveal the risks entailed by the unleash­ing of such forces.

The UJCml, in its strug­gle against the “revi­sion­ism” of the PCF lead­er­ship, clearly took its inspi­ra­tion from the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gles in China and the forms of orga­ni­za­tion that emerged within these strug­gles. (In August 1967, the lead­er­ship of the UJCml would make the oblig­a­tory trip to Bei­jing to wit­ness these events first­hand.) But the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion was, to be sure, com­pletely dif­fer­ent: the France of 1967 was hardly a social­ist coun­try torn between the temp­ta­tion to cap­i­tal­ist relapse and the will to surge for­ward along the path to full com­mu­nism. The task the UJCml set for itself was more mod­est, if still enor­mous: it would rebuild, from scratch, a prop­erly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, mass com­mu­nist party of the sort the PCF, in the UJCml’s esti­ma­tion, once aspired to be.

The UJCml would last a mere year and a half, being forced to dis­band by the French state after the tumul­tuous events of May and June 1968, while also hav­ing encoun­tered its own, inter­nal lim­its dur­ing those months. We can iden­tify three basic tac­ti­cal phases it devel­oped dur­ing this period. The first was the for­ma­tion, soon after the found­ing of the group, of what were called “Viet­nam Base Com­mit­tees,” orga­ni­za­tions meant to full-throatedly sup­port the Viet­namese strug­gle against Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism in oppo­si­tion to both the PCF’s weak plea for “Peace” in Viet­nam – the CVBs coun­tered with “The FLN will win!” – and the rival Trot­sky­ist National Viet­nam Com­mit­tee, with its more crit­i­cal if still unflinch­ing sup­port for the Viet­namese “rev­o­lu­tion.” These com­mit­tees had the effect of carv­ing out a space for the UJCml on a crowded left, siphon­ing off many rad­i­cal­ized lycée stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar who might have oth­er­wise drifted toward the hege­monic Trot­sky­ist posi­tion. More impor­tantly, these fledg­ling mass orga­ni­za­tions gave the UJCml a foothold in pop­u­lar and work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods, where the base com­mit­tees were able to main­tain a sus­tained con­tact with class lay­ers out­side of its stu­dent core. Though this ini­tial tac­tic was not aban­doned, and con­tin­ued up to May 1968, its lim­i­ta­tions were nev­er­the­less appar­ent: the UJCml’s capac­ity to build an authen­tic, rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass com­mu­nist party would require con­tact with indus­trial work­ing class of France at the point of pro­duc­tion. It would require enter­ing the factories.

The ini­tial form this took was a series of so-called enquêtes – inquiries or inves­ti­ga­tions – among worker (and, impor­tantly, poor peas­ant) milieus in the sum­mer of 1967. Inspired by the cel­e­brated Maoist dic­tum “no inves­ti­ga­tion, no right to speak,” the results of these inquiries – which ulti­mately afforded only lim­ited, exter­nal, and dis­con­tin­u­ous con­tact between the mil­i­tants and those class lay­ers whose expe­ri­ence and self-activity were to form the cor­ner­stone for the build­ing of a new com­mu­nist party – were deemed insuf­fi­cient, if not dis­ap­point­ing. Regroup­ing at the end of the sum­mer after a period of dis­per­sal across France, these mil­i­tants decided to take a rad­i­cal tac­ti­cal turn. The enquêtes would be con­ceived of as a set of ini­tial sur­veys, a pre­lim­i­nary sort of range-finding that would pre­pare for a new “step nec­es­sary for the devel­op­ment of the Marxist-Leninist move­ment in France” and “for the build­ing of the Com­mu­nist Party.”5 The inves­ti­ga­tions they had con­ducted over the sum­mer of 1967 would pave the way for a mil­i­tant implan­ta­tion within the large indus­trial com­plexes on the out­skirts of Paris and other major French cities. The mil­i­tants of the UJCml would clan­des­tinely enter pro­duc­tion as “pro­le­tar­ian syn­di­cal­ists” in order to cul­ti­vate the most com­bat­ive ele­ments of the French work­ing class and to rad­i­cal­ize, from within, the communist-controlled CGT trade union, trans­form­ing it into a “class strug­gle CGT.” The étab­lisse­ment move­ment was launched.

There is no “estab­lished” trans­la­tion for this par­tic­u­lar term in Eng­lish lan­guage accounts of this move­ment.6 In the arti­cle trans­lated in this issue of View­point, we have cho­sen, with some regret, to the leave the term untrans­lated. In all like­li­hood, the term was derived from a speech made by Mao Zedong in early 1957, and sub­se­quently trans­lated into French. The speech was deliv­ered in midst of the famous “Flow­ers” cam­paign that lasted from late 1956 until the next July, fol­lowed and to some extent coun­tered by an “anti-Rightist” cam­paign as well as the launch­ing of the ill-fated (not to say dis­as­trous) “Great Leap For­ward” with its people’s com­munes. Just a few weeks before, Mao had given one of his more impor­tant theoretico-political texts, “On the Cor­rect Han­dling of Con­tra­dic­tions Among the Peo­ple.” Now, at a Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party con­gress devoted to pro­pa­ganda work, Mao under­lines that despite the vic­to­ries won in the pur­suit of “build­ing social­ism” by the Chi­nese peo­ple, includ­ing much progress toward “social­ist indus­tri­al­iza­tion” and the trans­for­ma­tion of social rela­tions, the suc­cess of the ongo­ing strug­gle for social­ism will depend on resolv­ing the ques­tion as to who – the bour­geoisie or the pro­le­tariat – will win on the “ide­o­log­i­cal front.” The class strug­gle con­tin­ues at the heart of the social­ist project, even if it no longer takes the form of vio­lent, rev­o­lu­tion­ary war, as it did prior to the vic­tory of 1949. “There is still class strug­gle,” he says, and “it is very acute, too.” And: “The ques­tion of ide­ol­ogy has now assumed great impor­tance.” This strug­gle must even take place within the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party itself, in order to root out the var­i­ous devi­a­tions or errors that plague it: “sub­jec­tivism, bureau­cracy, and sectarianism.”

It is here that the prob­lem of “intel­lec­tu­als” gets posed – and its solu­tion wagered. After remark­ing that among the mil­lions of intel­lec­tu­als in China there exists a large stra­tum that still “wavers” in its com­mit­ment to Marx­ism, and indeed a small minor­ity that remain res­olutely “antag­o­nis­tic” toward it, Mao out­lines a series of steps of increas­ing inten­sity and, implic­itly, effec­tive­ness in – this is Mao’s term – “remould­ing” intel­lec­tu­als. Three forms of con­tact with the masses:

We encour­age intel­lec­tu­als to go among the masses, to go to fac­to­ries and vil­lages. It is very bad if you never in all your life meet a worker or a peas­ant. Our state per­son­nel, writ­ers, artists, teach­ers and sci­en­tific research work­ers should seize every oppor­tu­nity to get close to the work­ers and peas­ants. Some can go to fac­to­ries or vil­lages just to look around; this may be called “look­ing at the flow­ers on horse­back” and is bet­ter than doing noth­ing at all. Oth­ers can stay for a few months, con­duct­ing inves­ti­ga­tions and mak­ing friends; this may be called “dis­mount­ing to look at the flow­ers.” Still oth­ers can stay and live there for a con­sid­er­able time, say, two or three years or even longer; this may be called “set­tling down.”7

This sort of image is typ­i­cal of Mao. Among the lat­ter two images – “dis­mount­ing” from the horse for a few months, or “set­tling down” for a few years – we find the two forms of mil­i­tant prac­tice that would form the back­bone of French Mao­ism and shape the tra­jec­tory of its first group­ing: the inves­ti­ga­tion or enquête, and set­tling down, ors’établir (as the French trans­la­tions of Mao’s Man­darin had it). The title of the pro­gram­matic UJCml tract estab­lish­ing the aims, scope, and tac­tics of the étab­lisse­mentmove­ment could very well be trans­lated: “On Set­tling Down.” And the indi­vid­ual mil­i­tants that prac­tice this tac­tic: set­tlers.

“On Étab­lisse­ment” is indeed a pro­gram­matic text: it states the long-term strate­gic goals addressed by the for­ma­tion of groups of “set­tlers” in pro­duc­tion, states the impasses and antin­o­mies such a project will inevitably encounter, and pro­poses a series of tac­ti­cal steps to resolve or avoid these block­ages. If the stated ambi­tions of the UJCml are to build a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party to sup­plant the revi­sion­ary PCF, and if the task of the étab­lisse­ment groups is to cul­ti­vate, among the most com­bat­ive work­ers in each pro­duc­tion unit, lead­ing nuclei or cores on the basis of which the “Marxist-Leninist move­ment” in France can be con­structed, the fun­da­men­tal impasse these groups will address is a uni­ver­sal one, cor­re­spond­ing to a “law of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment”: a “divorce” between the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas cir­cu­lat­ing among stu­dents and intel­lec­tu­als and the spon­ta­neous com­bat­ive­ness of the advanced ele­ments of the work­ing class. The uni­ver­sal solu­tion to this dis­con­nec­tion is, accord­ing to the Lenin­ist line, the “fusion” of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism and the work­ers’ move­ment. But the con­crete form this solu­tion will take is what here mat­ters. If the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas of Marxism-Leninism (“the ideas of the mass line, of the strat­egy and tac­tics of pop­u­lar war, of the devel­op­ment in stages of the unin­ter­rupted rev­o­lu­tion­ary process, of the com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy of ‘Serv­ing the Peo­ple’ and of going to the school of the masses, the style of work that entails self-criticism and sub­mit­ting to the crit­i­cism of the masses”) always take hold first among the intel­lec­tu­als, only the “work­ing class” can “lead” the revolution.

Mao’s text on pro­pa­ganda work cen­tered in part on the neces­sity to “remould” intel­lec­tu­als. Such a trans­for­ma­tion is iden­ti­fied as a key aspect of the “ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle” needed to com­plete the con­struc­tion of social­ism. “On Étab­lisse­ment” in turn ends with a call to elim­i­nate the “ide­o­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism” that com­mands “self-revolutionization” on the part of intel­lec­tu­als.  What is pro­posed instead is that the set­tler groups see them­selves as “inter­me­di­aries” between the class and the class’s own devel­op­ment, and as pro­vi­sional for­ma­tions that, upon con­tact with the advanced ele­ments of the class, will give way to “com­mu­nist work groups” led not by UJCml mil­i­tants but by work­ers won over to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas of Marxism-Leninism. The pos­ture to be assumed is more tor­tu­ous than it is made out to be in the tract. Where the post-1968 Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne, com­posed of rem­nants of UJCml and the “lib­er­tar­ian” March 22 move­ment, will empha­size Mao’s con­cep­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion as first and fore­most the mere “sys­tem­ati­za­tion” – rather than pro­duc­tion – of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas already cir­cu­lat­ing among the masses, or that emerge within the strug­gles the masses under­take, here we wit­ness an unar­tic­u­lated ten­sion between this task of sys­tem­atiz­ing the thought that emerges from the masses them­selves and the impor­ta­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas from without.

The for­ma­tion of worker-led com­mu­nist work groups, and the weav­ing together of net­works of these groups that would unify and gen­er­al­ize worker strug­gles across and between pro­duc­tion units and sec­tors, was to form the infra­struc­ture nec­es­sary to build a suc­ces­sor to the PCF. But to do this required “clan­des­tine” work – aimed not at under­min­ing the CGT, or encour­ag­ing worker self-activity and self-organization out­side the relay belts of the entrenched insti­tu­tional forces of the clas­si­cal worker’s move­ment, but at return­ing to CGT’s mil­i­tant roots. “Long live the class strug­gle CGT!” was the watch­word of the groups set­tling down in the fac­to­ries. As Pierre Vic­tor, for­mer UJCml mil­i­tant and even­tual leader of the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne puts it in a long inter­view recorded over the course of 1971,

We set out in search of an alliance with the unions. This was incon­testably the dom­i­nant idea.… [The étab­lis] were to mil­i­tate within the CGT, to be really tough on posi­tions regard­ing class strug­gle, to make the move­ments harder, to con­tin­u­ally rad­i­cal­ize them and to defend the CGT in the name of its tra­di­tion.8

The prac­tice of étab­lisse­ment would con­tinue after the dis­so­lu­tion of the UJCml and the for­ma­tion of the GP in Octo­ber 1968, but this tac­tic of restor­ing the honor of the CGT was ulti­mately shelved after the cat­a­strophic role the lat­ter played along with its polit­i­cal over­seer, the PCF, in break­ing the insur­rec­tionary surge of May and June 1968.9 The GP will favor, par­tic­u­larly in 1970-71 and exem­plar­ily at Renault-Billancourt, the for­ma­tion of what it called “apo­lit­i­cal base com­mit­tees.”10 Focused pri­mar­ily on work­ing with unskilled and poorly paid immi­grant work­ers from North Africa, the GP’s tac­tics came to resem­ble in some ways, at times con­sciously, the “direct action syn­di­cal­ism” of the clas­si­cal CGT,11 with mil­i­tants in cer­tain fac­to­ries even study­ing Émile Pouget’s 1912 tract on sab­o­tage, while also prac­tic­ing the mil­i­tant forms of “ille­gal­ity” (boss­nap­ping, phys­i­cal attacks on fore­men, and so on) for which it became noto­ri­ous.12

The étab­lisse­ment move­ment largely dis­si­pated along with the final dis­so­lu­tion of theGauche pro­lé­tari­enne. There were, to be sure, many “set­tlers” work­ing with other group­ings, Maoist or not, that remained. And the move­ment had, truth be told, lost its vigor even among the GP mil­i­tants by the time of the latter’s shut­ter­ing, shortly after the mur­der of Pierre Overney by an armed guard out­side the gates of a fac­tory (he was attempt­ing to enter it with a group of GP mil­i­tants) in Feb­ru­ary 1972. The response of the GP’s clan­des­tine “armed” wing was to kid­nap a Renault exec­u­tive. He was released shortly there­after. The GP lead­er­ship later insisted that the death of Overney pre­sented the GP with an unac­cept­able choice: to con­tinue meant armed strug­gle, of the sort wit­nessed in Italy and Ger­many. Some ex-GP mil­i­tants chose that path; oth­ers entered the “auton­o­mist” squat­ter scene; most returned to a non-militant life. The GP’s short, tumul­tuous exis­tence has given rise to a vol­u­ble lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject; the étab­lisse­ment move­ment has incited fewer nar­ra­tive accounts, Robert Linhart’s cel­e­brated L’établi (trans­lated into Eng­lish as The Assem­bly Line) a notable excep­tion. Many of the set­tlers returned from the fac­to­ries full of fear, even rage and hatred, for the work­ers whom they ear­lier approached with what Lin­hart called “mys­ti­cal adoration”:

In France, I saw, just before or after 1968, young intel­lec­tu­als “set­tle down” among the work­ers and enter the fac­tory with the reli­gious fer­vor of men to whom the absolute truth was going finally to be revealed; then, after a dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ence or after fail­ures, these same men aban­doned this “set­tling down” by declar­ing that the work­ers had become irre­me­di­a­bly bour­geois – indeed, were cor­rupt or fas­cist.13

The reli­gious, indeed Chris­t­ian, note almost always accom­pa­nies these accounts. The UJCml’s pre­scrip­tion against petit-bourgeois ide­o­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism – one enters into the fac­tory solely to rev­o­lu­tion­ize one­self – gave rise to accounts that can often best be described as “tes­ti­monies,” or forms of bear­ing wit­ness. As the ety­mol­ogy of the term under­lines, these set­tlers were trans­formed into mar­tyrs. It is not by chance that many GP mil­i­tants ral­lied to the move­ment around the Lip fac­tory occu­pa­tion, and the Larzac land strug­gles that echoed it in coun­try­side. This occu­pa­tion marked the resur­gence of a rad­i­cal syn­di­cal­ism led by Catholic rad­i­cals asso­ci­ated not with the CGT but the CFDT14, includ­ing a Domini­can “red” priest sym­pa­thetic to Mao­ism, that attracted many. Some of these same mil­i­tants would look back on their years in the GP and their devo­tion to the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion as an expe­ri­ence com­pa­ra­ble to the Gnos­tic sects of early Chris­tian­ity. They would write a book to this effect called The Angel.15Shortly there­after, they would rally to the right­ist, post-gauchiste phe­nom­e­non called “The New Philosophy.”

The sequence opened by the launch­ing of the move­ment in the Fall of 1967 and closed by the resur­gence of rad­i­cal Chris­t­ian syn­di­cal­ism dur­ing the occu­pa­tion and “self-management” of the Lip watch fac­tory in 1973-4 took place a mere 40 years ago. It is, all the same, our antiq­uity. The period in ques­tion wit­nessed the most pow­er­ful wave of class strug­gle seen since the years fol­low­ing the end of the first World War. It was a cre­pus­cu­lar moment. The Lip episode rep­re­sented the wind­ing down of the Maoist moment and the defin­i­tive burn­ing off of the ener­gies released by May ‘68. That this period was char­ac­ter­ized, as much in Italy as in France, by forms of strug­gle that emerged out­side of the orga­ni­za­tions of the clas­si­cal work­ers’ move­ment and the strug­gles around wages these orga­ni­za­tions orches­trated and man­aged in con­cert with the State and the cap­i­tal­ist class, makes both the UJCml ambi­tion to rad­i­cal­ize the CGT from within and the cen­tral role the CFDT and its ide­ol­ogy of worker “self-management” played in the Lip occu­pa­tion fit­ting, if ironic, brack­ets for this parenthesis.

In a text devoted to “Build­ing the Party and the Union Ques­tion,” the Maoist group­ing led by Alain Badiou, Union of Marxist-Leninist Com­mu­nists of France (UCFML),16noted that the 1967 UJCml line on the orga­ni­za­tion of the pro­le­tariat – “entry­ism in unions,” under the slo­gan “Long live the class strug­gle CGT!” – mis­tak­enly “postulate[d] that the worker Left is syn­di­cal­ist,” a posi­tion that con­tra­dicted “the spon­ta­neous anti-revisionism of this Left, which in fact has as its prac­ti­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal form anti-syndicalism.”17 This judg­ment was offered in 1975, a cou­ple years after the final dis­so­lu­tion of the GP and its var­i­ous avatars, and in the final phases of the Lip episode. It was con­sis­tent, how­ever, with the posi­tion Badiou devel­oped in early 1969, when he was still a mem­ber of the Parti Social­iste Unifié (PSU), head­ing up a Maoist ten­dency that would even­tu­ally splin­ter away from the PSU in order to form the UCFML. But in a text pre­sented at the PSU party con­fer­ence that same year, Badiou announced two ways in which his tendency’s line departed from that of the UJCml. “In May ‘68,” he noted, “com­rades who had and still have our active sym­pa­thy, and even more than that, the mil­i­tants of the for­mer Union of Marxist-Leninist Com­mu­nist Youth were the vic­tims” of a “grave mal­ady of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment”:work­erism. Work­erism, as Badiou defines it, con­sists of three related errors: a sen­ti­men­tal depic­tion of the life of work­ers, a “blind belief in worker spon­tane­ity,” and a con­cep­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process as car­ried by work­ers alone, rather than by a pop­u­lar “united front” that would fuse worker and stu­dent strug­gles, while bring­ing onboard “poor peas­ants” as well. The work­erist devi­a­tion had led to a mas­sive error at the open­ing of the May 1968 stu­dent revolts: the UJCml thought its “con­tempt” for the stu­dent move­ment was autho­rized, inso­far as the lat­ter was deemed “petit-bourgeois” and “focused on the Uni­ver­sity.”18

The pas­sage from Robert Linhart’s book I cited to open this text was writ­ten at same moment, just after the crest­ing and shat­ter­ing of the Maoist wave in France. It forces us to estab­lish an uncer­tain con­nec­tion between the UJCml’s reputed work­erism and its use of the étab­lisse­ment tac­tic, to the sub­se­quent “about-face” expe­ri­enced by a vocal minor­ity within that move­ment: the turn from work­erism to a vir­u­lent hatred of the worker, to a rabid “anti-worker” ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tion that unde­ni­ably con­tributed to the larger right­ist turn among the French intel­li­gentsia in the mid-to-late 1970s. In a much more recent set of reflec­tions, Badiou speaks, in terms recall­ing Lin­hart, of a “turn­coat” phe­nom­ena among the GP lead­er­ship as well. He traces the rever­sals char­ac­ter­is­tic of this lead­er­ship to a set of three errors: “an impa­tient mega­lo­ma­nia with regard to the course of his­tory,” an extreme ide­ol­o­giza­tion among its mil­i­tants, and a “com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism” that lead them to orga­nize work­ers along ethno-cultural lines, par­tic­u­larly Arab work­ers.19 These crit­i­cisms are aimed largely at the GP in the period after it aban­dons the “Class strug­gle CGT” line. We are nev­er­the­less autho­rized to ask, on the basis of Badiou’s ear­lier crit­i­cisms of the UJCml posi­tion, what role the adop­tion of the tac­tic of étab­lisse­ment played in the ulti­mate right­ist bend in the road many of these mil­i­tants made. To iden­tify such a turn with the adop­tion of a mere tac­tic would be absurd. The tac­tic was deployed in a deter­mi­nate con­text, within a very spe­cific strate­gic hori­zon: a work­erist ide­o­log­i­cal envi­ron­ment, an entry­ist inser­tion at the point of pro­duc­tion in view of rebuild­ing a union of worker com­bat, the ambi­tion to build a prop­erly rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass party that would in turn take on the his­tor­i­cal tasks the PCF had renounced. To under­stand the his­tor­i­cal part played by this tac­tic or to coun­te­nance its con­tin­u­ing via­bil­ity would require account­ing for all of these ele­ments, and their com­bi­na­tion.20

  1. Bruno Bosteels dis­cusses Gorky’s account in his analy­sis of Ricardo Piglia’s “Hom­e­naje a Roberto Arlt.” See the chap­ter “In the Shadow of Mao” in Marx and Freud in Latin Amer­ica: Pol­i­tics, Psy­cho­analy­sis, and Reli­gion in Times of Ter­ror (Lon­don: Verso, 2012). 
  2. Robert Lin­hart, Lénine, Tay­lor, les paysans (Paris: Seuil, 1976), 59-60. 
  3. “On the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,” trans. Jason E. Smith, Décalages 1 (2012): 1-18. Most arti­cles in the Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes were pub­lished unsigned. Nev­er­the­less, it should be noted that Althusser would likely have been crit­i­cized severely within the PCF had this arti­cle appeared attrib­uted to him. The edi­to­r­ial con­ven­tions of the jour­nal here served as cover. 
  4. Ibid., 18, 17. In his excel­lent account of the Chi­nese Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion as per­haps the “last rev­o­lu­tion,” Alain Badiou also char­ac­ter­izes this recourse to “forces for­eign to the party” as an at least “par­tial defus­ing of the party and the State” (L’Hypothèse com­mu­niste[Paris: Lignes, 2009], 90, 92). Badiou’s term for this process of defus­ing is “dés­in­tri­ca­tion,” a term that is most likely bor­rowed from Freud’s the­ory of the fusion and “defu­sion” of dri­ves. Cf. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pon­talis, The Lan­guage of Psy­cho­analy­sis, tr. Don­ald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Nor­ton, 1974), 180. 
  5. “On Étab­lisse­ment,” trans­lated in this issue. 
  6. The best Eng­lish lan­guage account is Don­ald Reid’s “Étab­lisse­ment: Work­ing in the Fac­tory to Make Rev­o­lu­tion in France,” Rad­i­cal His­tory Review 88 (Win­ter 2004): 83-111. 
  7. Mao Zedong, “Speech at the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s National Con­fer­ence on Pro­pa­ganda Work,” March 12, 1957. 
  8. Ênquete sur les maos en France.” Pierre Vic­tor was the pseu­do­nym adopted by Benny Lévy. 
  9. The Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne will aban­don their ambi­tion to build a “class strug­gle CGT” in Jan­u­ary 1969. For an exhaus­tive time­line of Mao­ism in France, see Chris­t­ian Beu­vain and Flo­rent Schoumacher, “Chronolo­gie des maoïsmes en France, des années 1930 à 2010,”Dis­si­dences (Spring 2012). 
  10. On Renault-Billancourt, see for exam­ple “Rap­port d’ênquete: Renault-Billancourt,” Cahiers Pro­lé­taires 1 (Jan­u­ary 1971): 48-59. This report details the forms of sab­o­tage under­taken by mil­i­tant work­ers at Renault-Billancourt and the for­ma­tion, in late 1970, of “Anti-cop Worker Groups” in response to the “ter­ror­ism” exer­cised by plant man­age­ment. These groups took it upon them­selves to attack “bosses” sin­gled out for such ter­ror­ism, in forms rang­ing from the punc­tur­ing of auto­mo­bile tires to “face smash­ing [cas­sage de gueule].” 
  11. The CGT of the first decade of the 20th cen­tury was recep­tive to anarcho-syndicalist ten­den­cies, as evi­denced in the famous Char­ter of Amiens of 1906. 
  12. See Marnix Dressen, “Le mou­ve­ment d’établissement: une résur­gence du syn­di­cal­isme d’action directe?,” Le mou­ve­ment social 168, no. 3 (1994): 86. The GP was, of course, noto­ri­ous for the more spec­tac­u­lar forms of direct action it staged out­side the point of pro­duc­tion: the theft and free dis­tri­b­u­tion of sub­way tick­ets, the loot­ing of lux­ury gro­cery stores to feed the poor, and so on. 
  13. Robert Lin­hart, Lénine, Tay­lor, les paysans (Paris: Seuil, 1976), 59-60. 
  14. The Con­fédéra­tion française démoc­ra­tique du tra­vail was formed in 1964, but it orig­i­nated out of the Chris­t­ian syn­di­cal­ism of the for­mer French Con­fed­er­a­tion of Chris­t­ian Work­ers. Dur­ing and after May 1968, the CFDT was close to the eclec­tic Parti social­iste unifié (PSU) and by 1970 orga­nized its syn­di­cal activ­ity around the idea of auto­ges­tion, or worker self-management. 
  15. Chris­t­ian Jam­bet and Guy Lardreau, L’ange: pour une cynégé­tique du sem­blant (Paris: Gras­set, 1976). 
  16. Union des com­mu­nistes de France Marxiste-Léniniste
  17. May 1968 demon­strated this: “In 1968, worker anti-syndicalism was no doubt spon­ta­neous, con­fused. But it was also, already, the syn­the­sis at a first level of a pro­longed his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence: that of the strug­gle between two paths, between revi­sion­ism and the pro­le­tar­ian posi­tion, such as it appears in a prac­ti­cal, wild, form in any class strug­gle that is the least bit seri­ous. Whence the mas­sive, global anti-syndicalism in May 68.” Cf. “Édifi­ca­tion du parti et ques­tion syn­di­cale.” 
  18. A. Badiou, H. Jan­covici, D. Men­e­trey, E. Ter­ray, Con­tri­bu­tion au prob­lème de la con­struc­tion d’un parti marxiste-léniniste de type nou­veau (Paris : F. Maspéro, 1969), 42. Badiou does not men­tion the spe­cific impre­ca­tion cast upon this move­ment by the polit­i­cal bureau of the UJCml on May 9, one week into the rebel­lion: “the largest anti-communist move­ment since 1956,” i.e. the revolt in Hun­gary that was smashed by Soviet tanks. It should be noted that Badiou also dis­cusses the ambi­ent sen­ti­ment within the PSU of giv­ing “pri­or­ity to implan­ta­tion in enter­prises,” but does not address the UJCml’s set­tle­ment ini­tia­tive per se
  19. Alain Badiou, “Roads to Rene­gacy,” New Left Review 53 (Sept.-Oct. 2008): 125-33. 
  20. Thanks to the edi­tors of View­point, Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi, and Rachel Kush­ner, for their help in the draft­ing of this short essay. 

is Assistant Professor at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Aarons October 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

A very interesting article in many respects, but how can one begin to understand the political practice and political evolution of French workers, peasants, students, et al., without even mentioning that France was and is a major imperialist power?

There are single references to “organiz[ing] work­ers along ethno-cultural lines, par­tic­u­larly Arab workers” and “work­ing with unskilled and poorly paid immi­grant work­ers from North Africa”, but questions like the relationship of “French” workers to these groups and to the super-profits of imperialism are not even mentioned. I find it hard to believe that the Maoists themselves would have been oblivious to those issues, even if the present writer is.


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