Louis Althusser – ‘Michel Verret’s Article on the “Student May”’
For the first time, Louis Althusser's response to Michel Verret's article on the "Student May" has been translated into English. Here we publish the full text of the essay, with an introduction by Warren Montag.
Althusser produced three substantive analyses of May 1968: A letter to Maria Antonietta Macciocchi (published here recently), a section of On the Reproduction of Capitalism and “À propos de l’article de Michel Verret sur ‘Mai Etudiant’”. Although he wrote all three less than a year after the events and did so with the intention of publishing them, only one appeared in French during his lifetime. It would be easy to assume that the two texts (or parts of texts) that he ultimately withheld from publication offered an account of the May events substantially different from and to the left of the line of the PCF’s leadership (which as we now know was not the monolith it was thought to be, above all on the question of the CGT’s relation to the growing militancy of workers in the great industrial enterprises). In fact, Althusser chose to publish the analysis most critical of the PCF’s attempts to intervene in and provide direction for the struggles in the universities, as well as in the factories: the response, published here, to Michel Verret’s “Mai étudiant ou les substitutions.” Of the three texts, it was also the most wide-ranging defense of the objectively “progressive” or even revolutionary character of the student movements and the new movements among younger workers. Moreover, Althusser chose to publish this text in La Pensée, a journal closely linked to the PCF, thereby insuring that it would come to the attention of Party intellectuals.
Reading Verret’s article today, one might well wonder why Althusser would take the trouble to respond to it (apart from the fact that they had been friends, as well as comrades, for more than twenty years). As he himself warns the reader at the beginning of his response, Verret’s essay is “extremely brilliant: far too brilliant. This excess is betrayed from the start in its language, which is remarkably terse, dense, deliberately elliptical, full of rhetorical figures and overloaded with an esoteric vocabulary.” From this judgment follows the charge that no “worker comrade will find it easy to read this text, or indeed to read it at all, given how very long and dense it is, and cut up into short peremptory chapters whose titles display remarkable affectation.” For once Althusser can turn the very denunciations so often aimed at him against an adversary within the PCF whose intellectual affectation and ostentation expose him to the attacks of the forces of anti-intellectualism within the Party. But even more importantly, the positions Verret defends with his gaudy and often inane phrases are those of PCF leadership, a fact that allows Althusser to criticize the latter in the guise of a critique of the former. In short, Verret plays the role in Althusser’s drama that John Lewis would make famous only a few years later: that of the useful idiot in theory. His interpretation of the role however is the inverse of the proudly austere, “no bullshit,” John Lewis. Althusser could not have invented a better target: a member of the PCF who defends the Party’s conduct in the May revolt with crudely economistic arguments dressed up in a rhetorical and stylistic finery meant to appeal to the very students he criticizes. Althusser can thus turn Verret’s own workerism against his mode of expression while preparing the ground for an assault on the theoretical and political foundations of his critique of the student movement. And there is no doubt of the necessity of such a task: Verret’s reduction of the theory and practice of the actually existing student movement to the interests and inclinations proper to the class origins and future economic functions of the individuals it comprises was, in one form or another, widely shared within the PCF leadership and regularly enacted in its denunciations of the students’ “adventurism.”
To this “sociologism,” Verret adds a psychological or psycho-social analysis that articulates the often unexpressed, but not uncommon, feelings of contempt within the PCF towards the students and their politics. According to Verret, “in the ostentation of their iconoclasm the insurgents of 1968 confused the rebellion of a young man against an infantile alienation from the adult world with a revolt against class oppression.” As a temporary, transitional group, students are driven by the artificial sense of urgency that arises from knowing that they will spend only four or five years as students and therefore have only four or five years to change the world. From this sense of urgency comes the audacity (a key word for Verret) to act without an adequate knowledge of the conjuncture and the relation of forces that governs it. Further, their adventurism is driven by the fact that students “are a group without memory,” who imagine that the repression they face is without precedent. The world of the workers, Verret solemnly declares, has “more memories. The memories of its scars.” The students do not realize that their revolt was in fact spared the deadly violence exercised against Algerians in October 1961 and, to a lesser extent, against Communists at Charonne in February 1962; the authorities, consciously or not, regard the student movement as a “revolt of princes,” an affair internal to a modern aristocracy, and extend to it a tolerance denied to workers. Moreover, the weapons wielded by the movement, the general strike and street barricades, whose origins lie in the most celebrated revolts of the working class and its allies, are in reality nothing more than the fantasmatic doubles of the weapons used in the past: students can only “play” what amounts to a fantasy game of general strike, the stakes and sacrifices of which are largely imaginary. Because the students mistake the mythical universe they inhabit for historical reality, they feel only scorn for the leadership of the actual workers’ movement. The fact that the latter decides its tactics on the basis of a precise calculation of the relation of forces leads the student movement, in whose imaginary world all things are possible at all times, to see only betrayal or a failure of nerve. Verret argues that even the widespread demands for workers’ control or self-management that emerged in the factories themselves, are foreign to the lived experience and economic interests of the workers and must have originated in the University from which they were then transmitted, like a contagious disease, by the students who flocked to the factories in solidarity with the workers.
Thus, despite its exorbitant language and conceptual eccentricity, Verret’s critique of “student May” (which reduces the May revolt to a simulacrum of genuine revolt) offers both a familiar analysis and an equally familiar moralizing denunciation of the politics emanating from the student movement, above all, its criticisms of the PCF. Althusser begins his response by turning Verret’s own intellectualized anti-intellectualism and economism against him. The workers recognized the significance of the fact that so many students came to the factories to meet them and to offer their services to the workers’ cause, even though they “were not on the same wavelength.” Paradoxically, Verret’s text was manifestly written for students, not workers, in what he imagines to be their language; unlike him, however, students showed very clearly in their leaflets and posters that they spoke the idiom of the workers quite fluently and that their slogans (Althusser had a kind of reverence for Lenin’s “On Slogans”) in certain cases spoke especially to young workers. Althusser insists that the very formulation “student May” is incorrect: the PCF must recognize that student May was in fact workers’ May or “the May of the Proletarians,” a fact ignored by the PCF, the media and by some of the students themselves.
For Althusser, the fact that a significant part of the student movement understood both the strategic importance of the proletariat and the combativity of workers in their historical conjuncture demonstrated the impossibility of deriving an explanation of the student movement from its institutional position, economic functions or the class background of most of its participants. The student movement is a global phenomenon, determined in part by the defeats inflicted on Imperialism by national liberation movements after WWII and by the continuing “international anti-imperialist class struggles.” Althusser points to the critical “role of such examples as Algeria (Verret says that ‘the student group has no memory’! I can assure him that the war in Algeria has left deep traces in the memory of former students and even the students of today); Cuba, Vietnam and China (the echoes of the Cultural Revolution played a far from negligible part in the student ideology of May).”
Given the psycho-sociological approach to the May events which prevents him from understanding the international and internationalist character of the student movement, Verret cannot acknowledge, let alone explain, “the massive fact: that for the first time in history a student ideological rebellion has also extended both to school students and to large strata of young intellectual workers, thereby becoming a mass ideological rebellion; that for the first time in history this ideological rebellion has undermined not only ‘established values’ but also state institutions and their age-old practices.” The student revolt was “a deeply progressive rebellion, which holds a far from negligible place historically in the world class struggle against imperialism.” May 68, for Althusser, was an encounter, not a missed encounter, but an encounter that did not “take,” between workers engaged in one of the most powerful general strikes in European history and the broad movement around (but not exclusively composed of) students. The central political question is thus posed: what are the conditions in which this encounter can be made to persist? How can the student movement “not in words, but in acts” help realize this fusion? More to the point, what must the PCF do to bring about the unity of forces absolutely essential to any successful transformation of society? For Althusser, there is no other way than for Communists to identify their own errors and engage with the student movement, a process that must begin not simply with a tolerant approach to the “infantile leftism” of students, but with a recognition of their progressive and, in an objective sense, revolutionary opposition to capitalism and imperialism. Finally, in the interstices and silences of Althusser’s response to Verret may be heard a voice from another place and time: to lead the masses, you must first learn from them and from all the forms of struggle in which they are perpetually engaged.
Louis Althusser, ‘Michel Verret’s Article on the “Student May”’
I have just read the article by Michel Verret in no. 143 of La Pensée (February 1969), on the subject of the ‘Student May, or Substitutions’.
I would like to express the real interest it has inspired in me, but also my serious reservations.
Verret’s article can rightly claim a threefold merit.
1) It is to my knowledge the first text by a Communist devoted to the analysis of certain forms of the student ideology of May ’68. By this token, it fills a major gap in existing French Marxist literature.
2) It is to my knowledge one of the first analyses that, taking a rather particular object (the spectacular upsurge of student ideology in an economic and political context that is familiar at least in its broad lines), attempts to sketch out a theory of the mechanisms that forms of a given ideology can play in the dialectic, when this ideology is directly confronted with its realizations on the one hand, and reality on the other. Verret’s essay thus leads on to a problem that clearly goes beyond the immediate object of his analysis: that of the constitution of a Marxist theory of the mechanisms of ideology, and the transformations that the dialectic of these mechanisms imposes on the actual forms of the ideology in question.
3) The final and very great merit of Verret’s text is its political courage, in indicating the political task of a ‘common combat’ with the ‘leftist’ students; more precisely, doing so in terms of ‘unity of action’, ‘on the actual terrain’, given ‘the common enemy and common objectives’, though it does this in a few very swift words, which strongly risk being overlooked.This is in fact a very difficult task, not only because of fiercely held prejudices and suspicions, but above all because of the reasons for these prejudices and suspicions, and for their intensity, reasons that in my view are very far from having been tackled by anyone with the necessary requirements of scientific objectivity.
I believe it would be a mistake and an injustice to underestimate this threefold merit – and especially the final point.
But, once this threefold merit is acknowledged, and as a function of Verret’s own theoretical and political project, it is impossible, at least in my view, to remain silent about the defects of this same article. I shall allow myself to examine these rapidly, in order of rising importance. I shall seek to give a positive turn, as far as this is possible, to the critique that seems to me imperative.
Every reader who has had the opportunity to read Verret’s article is bound to recognize right away that it is extremely brilliant: far too brilliant. This excess is betrayed from the start in its language, which is remarkably terse, dense, deliberately elliptical, full of rhetorical figures and overloaded with an esoteric vocabulary.
I doubt that any worker comrade will find it easy to read this text, or indeed to read it at all, given how very long and dense it is, and cut up into short peremptory chapters whose titles display a remarkable affectation. This is already in my view a serious political fault. For our worker comrades who marched alongside the students in the gigantic and enthusiastic demonstration of 13 May, who are familiar with students approaching them, seeking their acquaintance or offering their services at the gates of their workplaces, or fighting courageously at their side in many circumstances – even while ‘sensing’ that the students, despite their generosity, were not ‘on the same wavelength’ as them – our worker comrades have the right to a clear and intelligible explanation of the particular ideological forms that animated the students in May, of the progressive force of their mass movement, of their merits but also their mistakes, and of the logic of their reactions, which they often find disconcerting. From this point of view, a political one, Verret’s article seems to me bound either to escape its worker readers entirely or to inform them very poorly, even muddying their ideas by the strange language in which it is written, and by the insufficient character of its analyses.
I will go further. I do not think that this article, clearly written with students in mind, and students alone, really achieves the aim that is clearly intended. I fear that Verret imagines he will be understood by students if he speaks their language, believing this to be the language of the ‘dominant cultural legitimacy in the student milieu’.
Everything I know of the language that the students spoke in May, however, and that they still speak now, belies this conviction, at least in fundamentals. With the exception of certain anarchists obsessed by themes of ‘jouissance’, sexual or otherwise, the most conscious students did not speak about the barricade as ‘erection’, about an index of permissiveness, messiahs of pedagogic parousia, fantastical places, charisma, Freudian anxiety fantasies, one-eyed vigilance or hemiplegic critique – to cite only these expressions among an excessive number of similar formulations. To my knowledge, despite their confusion and mistakes, the majority of May leaflets spoke a quite different language, and the May posters spoke the language of everyone.
I am aware of the objection that will be made to me, that Verret’s language, being the language of an analysis of the student ideology of May in terms of ‘Marxist sociology’, must, as a scientific language (and, if it truly was one, it would have a perfect right to this), be a different language from that of the students, whether that in which they expressed their demands and hopes in May, or that in which they sought to ‘theorize’ their actions and hopes. I agree with this, but this is just where things take a more serious turn.
For if Verret’s subjective intention, to start theoretically considering the dialectic of the mechanisms of an ideology in action, is perfectly well founded, if for this purpose it requires the elaboration of theoretical concepts, then these concepts must be Marxist. We have to note, however, that although the fund of expressions Verret uses, with an insistence that borders on enjoyment, is weighted with theoretical notions, these are actually ones that, while alluding to real problems and to a Marxist theory that is necessary but still to be elaborated, have in fact very little to do with Marxist theory. His terminology, at least when he speaks of ideology, which moreover he refers to by a term that will not deceive anyone, the ‘social imaginary’, is one that is seen as avant-garde in France, and has been used in the writings of Bourdieu and Passeron, which had a certain merit in their time – but a terminology that is no more, we have to say, than a mixture of Weberian/Durkheimian and pseudo-Freudian terminology, in other words, psycho-sociological and thus not scientific.
Verret will perhaps be surprised to read that his analyses of student ideology do not pertain to the ‘Marxist sociology’ that he appeals to, but rather to psycho-sociology. However, one need only look through his first chapter (‘the index of boldness’, ‘the index of “permissiveness”’, ‘the index of aristocratism’, ‘princely rebellions’) to understand that he confines himself here to a purely psycho-sociological description of the students’ ‘motivations’, invoking a kind of abstract ‘student condition’, and that this description completely abstracts from the economic, political and ideological situation that provided the field of the May ideological rebellion.
The fact that the student group is a ‘transitive group’, between the family life that it is in the process of abandoning and the professional life it has not yet begun, between half-knowledge and knowledge, between morality and politics; that this ‘situation’ ‘permits’ students very much more ‘freedom’ than that of manual workers or other working people, even intellectuals; that the children of bourgeois and petty bourgeois, ‘depositories of the cultural legitimacy in which the social order is reflected, sanctioned and justified’, take an ‘aristocratic’ pleasure in shaking ‘established values’; that in this apparent ‘freedom’ they give in to ‘fantasies’ in which the ‘pervasiveness of the pleasure principle’ can be realized at little cost – who will deny this? But who will deny that these have always been the conditions of students, that in every age student youth, especially when ‘gilded’, have always enjoyed, as long as youth lasts, scandalizing both their own parents and the ‘established order’? What does such a general analysis teach us about the great ideological rebellion of May, how it is distinguished both from a predominantly aesthetic-anticlerical rebellion, such as that of the ‘Surrealist’ youth in the aftermath of the First World War, or, more pertinently, from the fascistic and soon actually fascist rebellions that overwhelmed most countries of Western Europe after 1921 in Italy, 1933 in Germany, even threatening France between 1932 and the war?
The two following propositions are precisely reversible: 1) failure to define the precise economic, political and ideological conditions that lie at the root of and thus distinguish these different rebellions amounts to renouncing any truly sociological analysis, and falling into the common residue of a psycho-sociological analysis; and 2) fascination with indexes of ‘permissiveness’, ‘boldness’ and ‘aristocratism’, leading to the sole use of psycho-sociological language, inevitably means missing the historical reasons that make a particular student rebellion aesthetic, fascist, or progressive.
There is no need to say that the result is politically important, as it refers all its readers to a timeless ‘essence’ of the ‘transitive’ freedom of student youth, in which each person, whether aesthete, fascist or progressive, can find their place at little cost.
This should at least make one point clear, though it is perfectly defined in any case by all the classics of Marxism: that no analysis of a given ideology, and a fortiori of the particular forms in which its mechanisms are expressed, is possible without relating it to the specific historical conditions that serve it as foundation and field. Verret, however, does not attempt an analysis of the specific economic, political and ideological conditions that gave rise, not only in France but throughout the world, to the ideological rebellion of educated youth. From which a double result follows:
1) In terms of the concepts he employs, he is forced to have recourse to a muddle of Weberian/Durkheimian/Freudian sociological pseudo-concepts, in the amalgam that constitutes the basis of every psycho-sociological ‘theory’. In fact, these pseudo-concepts are ‘valid’ for all ideological rebellions, whatever their political tendency and thus their impact. Rebellions of a brief moment or a long term; superficial or deep: aesthetic, fascist, or progressive.
2) On the political level, the consequence is clear. As we are given no explanation how the world ideological rebellion of educated youth is one of the major effects of the agony of imperialism; no explanation of the role of such examples as Algeria (Verret says that ‘the student group has no memory’! I can assure him that the war in Algeria has left deep traces in the memory of former students and even the students of today); Cuba, Vietnam and China (the echoes of the Cultural Revolution played a far from negligible part in the student ideology of May); no explanation of the fact that bourgeois ideology has been severely shaken, not to say dismantled, by the events of world history that have transpired since fascism, the war in Spain, the last world war and the socialist revolutions that followed it; no explanation (and this lies at the root of everything else) of the fact that the petty bourgeoisie, and even certain bourgeois ‘executives’, even in France, have been deeply affected by the economic crisis that has touched them, maybe even suffering or expecting unemployment (how many future unemployed in the ranks of today’s students?); -- as nothing of all this is explained, any ‘sociological’ analysis of the student ideology of May 1968 becomes a psycho-sociological -- and thus idealist – analysis of the ‘social imaginary’ of a ‘transitive group’ eternally in transition, eternally between two stools: the ‘student group’.
The result is that it becomes impossible not only to account for the following massive fact: that for the first time in history a student ideological rebellion has also extended both to school students and to large strata of young intellectual workers, thereby becoming a mass ideological rebellion; that for the first time in history this ideological rebellion has undermined not only ‘established values’ but also state institutions and their age-old practices (the school system above all), which are far from recovering from this; that this French ideological rebellion is only a part of an ideological rebellion of world youth, with an unchallengeably progressive character, despite its mistakes, its arrogance, and its inevitable illusions.
To put things in a nutshell: if we do not know where an ideological rebellion is coming from, if we do not know the depth of its historical roots, there is a high probability of being unable to discern what its political significance, impact and future are, thus to what degree it can assist or otherwise the proletarian class struggle against imperialism, on both the global and the national level.
I could stop here, but I must however go further.
Verret is perfectly entitled to devote a study to the ideology of the May student actions. However, he does not stop at discussing the student rebellion. He also speaks of the workers’ strike. When he speaks of the workers’ strike he speaks a Marxist language, no longer a psycho-sociological one. And yet, in an article addressed above all to students, I believe he should consider it politically indispensable above all else to redress the mistaken representation of the May events that the majority of students still cultivate. It is impossible, ten months after May 1968, and given the state of extreme ideological confusion in which very many students who see themselves as ‘revolutionary’ or simply ‘progressive’ find themselves, to believe that things have been sufficiently clarified on this point, and that for the students, May was above all a ‘May of the proletarians’. I know that this point has been emphasized by the Party, but many students, who have not been touched by the positions taken by the Party (for reasons that need to be analysed, as they are serious ones), still maintain illusions as to the real order of things. To be able to speak to them, assuming that one was capable of presenting a genuine scientific sociological analysis of their ideology, the first requirement would be to explicitly put things in their true order, and say what May 1968 was.
What was May 1968 in France?
An encounter between, on the one hand, a general strike that was to my knowledge unprecedented in Western history in terms of both number of participants and duration, and, on the other hand, actions that were not just those of students, but also of school students and ‘intellectuals’ (involving young ‘intellectual workers’, doctors, architects, artists, journalists, lawyers, engineers, salaried staff, junior and middle executives, etc.).
In this encounter, the workers’ general strike was overwhelmingly the absolutely determinant event, while the actions of students, school students and ‘intellectuals’ that chronologically preceded these, though a new event of great importance, were subordinate.
We must also recognize the generally unknown fact that, whereas for the bourgeoisie, for their parents and for themselves, the students ‘held the front of the stage’ in spectacular actions, the deeper and more complex actions were in all probability the act of non-student strata: students in secondary schools, in the technical colleges, and young ‘intellectual workers’. Verret’s article, however, fails to mention how substantial were the actions of these strata.
Such is the historical reality as it seems to me, at least in its broad lines, and in the order of importance of the respective actions that in May 1968 encountered one another, without managing to fuse.
Now, since May 1968, in other words for the last six months, apart from the imprecations of de Gaulle, directly aimed at the workers whose ‘totalitarian’ threat he denounced, all official ‘projectors’, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois (an immense literature in both the national and international markets), including unfortunately a number of student ‘projectors’ themselves, have almost – if not quite – exclusively focused on the student May. I deliberately say ‘student May’, as the ‘school student May’ and the ‘intellectual workers’ May’ were not entitled to the same publicity. On the other hand, apart from the publications of the Party and the CGT, which to my knowledge have not yet produced any detailed and in-depth sociological analysis about what took place in the different strata of working people, according to their different branches of production and employment; and apart from a few isolated reportages, there has been a quasi-total silence about workers’ May (the May of the proletarians, as Salinicorrectly put it)!
Now, whatever his convictions on this question (and I do not question their correctness), Verret, simply by the arrangement of chapters in his analysis, and thus by the position in his text where he introduces the workers’ strike, ends up with a result that he assuredly does not desire: he may well want to correct, by a critique of student illusions, the representation that the students have of the relation that exists between their idea of the strike (‘analogous strike’) and the strike itself, but he fails to restore the strike to its real place, in other words he does not show the actual subordinate relationship that student and other actions had with the general strike of the workers. Whether he wishes it or not, and even despite criticisms that are often formally pertinent, he thereby objectively maintains the students who read him in the number one illusion of their own ‘interpretation’ of May. For too many students are still spontaneously tempted to write the history of May along the exclusive lines of a Student May, which certainly does not politically displease the bourgeoisie, hard pressed for its part to forget, and have its children forget, that without the prodigious strike of nine million workers the barricades of the Latin Quarter would perhaps have left more injuries than hopes and dreams that are still alive – and durably alive, since they inspire the tenacious and profound actions, however disordered, that we have observed since October 1968, above all in secondary schools, technical colleges, teacher training institutes, etc.
If, despite all reservations, we now come to the particular object of Verret’s analysis, we shall call this not the ‘social imaginary’ of the students, but the ideological currents expressed in the student, school student and ‘intellectual’ actions of May 1968 in France. Here again, I fear that Verret gives in to a double illusion or insufficiency.
1) He deals with student ideology as if this was a single ideology. And yet he knows very well, and says so, that the ‘student milieu’ is composite, since it includes, besides 8 or 9% children of workers, others from very different social strata, running from the most modest petty bourgeois through to the big bourgeoisie, and even remnants of the aristocracy.
If we bear in mind that not only students, but also large numbers of intellectual workers, took part in the May actions, it becomes hard to speak of an ideology, unless this is seen as an unstable combination of several currents. In fact, even speaking only of the students, and following the successive splits in the Communist student union in the wake of anti-imperialist struggles (Algerian war, Latin American maquis, Vietnam) and the split in the International Communist Movement, several currents of very different ideological tendencies existed, affiliated either to anarchism (the 22 March movement), Trotskyism, Guevarism or the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
This diversity is part of the explanation for the fluctuations of student actions in May, their hesitations, and in part also their weakness. Proof of this is that the majority of ‘groupuscules’ broke up or disappeared under the test of May. At the present time, though we cannot say for how long, the dominant ideology is ‘anti-groupuscule’, and more generally anti-organizational in a neo-Luxemburgist mode, its organs of ‘substitution’being Action Committees, which in certain cases are not ineffective.
Any analysis of student ideology, therefore, should take into account all these composite facts. For it is also partly a still widespread illusion in broad strata of the student milieu that there exists a single student ideology. The meaning of student actions, perhaps even their coherence, should I believe be sought rather on the side of the objectives of these actions, and more deeply that of their determinant causes (which I discussed very rapidly above).
2) On top of this, Verret seems to believe that the dominant ideology in the student movement in May was ‘anarcho-syndicalist’, which he curiously describes as the mass ideology of anarchism, as if anarchism as such could not be a mass ideology, particularly in social strata of such heterogeneous origin as those from which students are drawn. He indicates such slogans as ‘workers’ power’, ‘union power’, etc.
To my knowledge, however, it was libertarian-anarchist ideology that was dominant in May among the students in general, although it may be that in certain centres (Nantes, for example, where there is a strong anarcho-syndicalist tradition in the workers’ movement), students launched anarcho-syndicalist slogans, which, again to my knowledge, were proclaimed particularly by the CFDT and PSU(‘workers’ power’, ‘student power’, ‘peasant power’). At the present time (March 1969), it seems to me that the dominant ideology in the ‘advanced’ core of the student ‘movement’ is an ideology of neo-Luxemburgist type, even though anarchist ideology still remains very strong here, in relatively developed forms, if not gaining ground.
I have to speak now of the motive behind Verret’s intervention, in other words the almost exclusively critical form of his article. It is clearly indispensable to criticise the illusions and mistakes of our student comrades, even ‘severely and rigorously’, as Lenin said about working-class leftism, and ‘one should not flatter the youth’. But it is also necessary, in particular, to pay the greatest attention to the fact that these mistakes are an ‘infantile disorder’ not of the working class but of the youth, and an educated or intellectual youth.This youth should not automatically be confused with the small groups who try to take over its leadership – and neither should its aspirations and reactions be confused with their ‘slogans’. What should interest us is the mass of educated and intellectual youth, and its deep-rooted tendencies.
Now I do not believe that the method employed by Verret in his article (negative criticism, in a coldly satirical form, without giving sufficient explanations or indicating a solution: and I know that these last two demands are not easy to satisfy in the present conjuncture) is the best one.
What should a Communist do, ten months after May, to help students who are still massively caught up in the effects of the ideological illusions with which they covered their actions in May for better or worse, actions that were sometimes adventurous, but courageous and even heroic? Lenin puts us on the right track, in a text from 1916 that Salini quotes:
Given the insufficient theoretical clarity among such young people, we must react in a completely different manner from what we have been doing, and we must do so in relation to the theoretical salad and lack of revolutionary scope displayed by… the adults (Kautsky & co.) who deceive the proletariat, who claim to lead and educate the others, and against whom a merciless struggle is necessary; here we are dealing with organizations of the youth, openly declaring that they are pursuing their apprenticeship, and that their main task is to train militants for the socialist parties. We must do everything to help this youth, we must show the greatest patience when they make mistakes, and seek to correct them bit by bit, preferably by persuasion and not by struggle. It is not uncommon that people of a certain age, or old people, are unable to approach the youth, who are necessarily obliged to come to socialism differently from their fathers, by other paths, in other forms and in other conditions.
I know that conditions in March 1969 are not those of 1916, and that it is perhaps far harder to display patience than at that time, in the face of certain systematic attacks that directly target the Party and the CGT. But I believe that Lenin’s recommendation still has the same value, even in a situation in which, on top of everything, the World Communist Movement is riven by a severe split (in 1916, the situation was not brilliant either in this respect). I do not believe it is correct to rest content with criticising from above, with the confidence given by the political experience of a ‘mature man’, the student youth who are seeking their way in a situation that is ‘difficult’ not just for them.
For, in the end, if we seek to bear in mind the essential elements of the situation in which they are seeking their way, it seems to me that we have to consider two facts, and look them properly in the face:
1) The ideological rebellion of educated youth, which reached its peak in May 1968 in France, began ten to fifteen years ago in many parts of the world. It is clearly a quite different event from the ephemeral aesthetic rebellions of the early 1920s, and different again from the enrolment of youth in pre-war fascist movements. It is in fact a global rebellion, and it is incontestably, taken as a whole and despite certain stupidities, no matter how serious these are, a deeply progressive rebellion, which holds a far from negligible place historically in the world class struggle against imperialism. It is actually undermining the apparatus par excellence for inculcating bourgeois ideology -- the capitalist school system. There is every reason to believe that, even if it suffers serious setbacks, this rebellion has ahead of it, through its trials and beyond these, a real and lasting future. The fundamental question faced by this rebellious youth is the following: will it effect a fusion with the Workers’ Movement, not in words but in acts? Will it be helped to realize this fusion?
2) The fact is that in May this amazing youth had to wage the gigantic struggle in which it was engaged, too great for its own forces, in an objectively dramatic condition: abandoned to itself, in other words, alone.
This is an objective fact, which we have to consider with the utmost seriousness.
The fact is that, except in China, where in an absolutely different context, and with immediate aims that do not correspond to our own conditions, the leadership of the People’s Republic took the head (or the initiative?) of the ideological rebellion of youth, over the last several years – marked in France by successive crises of the Communist student organization – our Communist parties had practically lost contact with the mass of educated youth.
Yet apart from simply noting this fact,I have not seen that anyone has really it taken seriously or analysed it fundamentally, not only as a fact of our own history, but as a fact that goes beyond the borders of our country, since this ideological rebellion has affected for several years, and is continuing to affect, not only the capitalist countries, but certain socialist countries themselves. I have not been aware of any concrete, systematic and in-depth analysis of the concrete global and national situation that led to this loss of contact, which is very damaging, not only to the struggle of the working class, but also and above all to educated youth themselves.
I know that since May the Party has made great efforts to rebuild a contact that had been lost in May, at a crucial moment in the class struggle, but given the lack of a concrete analysis of the situation that led to this lamentable fact, I have reason to fear that the new contacts we are currently in the process of building rest on certain ambiguities or certain omissions that may well cost us quite dear sooner or later, despite victories that risk being in part Pyrrhic ones. For it is impossible, according to proper Leninist doctrine, to correct a mistake, or make up for a gap resulting from a mistake, except on the absolute condition of analysing the causes of this mistake right to their root.
What I say of the student situation applies equally, with all due reservations, to the situation of the working class itself in May. If we had at our disposal more concrete analysesof what happened in May, in the different strata of workers, the different branches of production and employment, we would be able to give the students great help in correcting the largely illusory idea that they have of the working class, its conditions of existence and struggle, its rhythms and experiences, its confidence and also its suspicions.
I believe I can maintain, all things considered, that this absence of an overall analysis, both systematic and detailed, of the causes for the loss of contact between the Party and educated youth in May on the one hand, and this insufficiency of detailed analyses of the actions of the working class in May, on the other, contributed to abandoning the actions of the educated and intellectual youth to themselves, in May and since May, and quite particularly, contributed to casting them head first – both in May and since then – into the archaic illusions of anarchist or anarchisant ideology that are currently dominant.
This is all leading up to a conclusion, which I would like, following Lenin’s advice, to be not simply critical but also and especially positive, although it necessarily remains programmatic, given the state of information available.
I believe it is necessary, once things are put back on their feet (in other words, once the absolute historical primacy of the general strike over the student actions in May is asserted, and demonstratively reasserted), to consider with the utmost seriousness the ideological rebellion of educated youth and young intellectual workers that has long been brewing in the world and in France, taking a spectacular form here and there (Turkey, Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, USA, etc.) before culminating in France in May, thanks to the general strike.
It is necessary to analyse in depth the underlying reasons, international and national, for this ideological rebellion, which is, naturally at its own level, an unprecedented event in history and an irreversible one.
It is also necessary, without retreating from this difficult task, to analyse in depth the reasons for the loss of ideological and political contact with the educated and intellectual youth on the part of the Communist parties, in both international and national terms.
It is necessary to present these analyses in detail and publicly, and if need be, have the political courage to move from analysis to self-criticism, drawing the ideological and political consequences that are implied. Without this, the yawning gap in May between the Party of the working class and the educated and intellectual youth risks either not being really bridged, or being bridged only in a makeshift way, with all the losses and injuries this would involve.
In this way we can help our young student comrades with all our powers, ‘patiently, by persuasion in preference to struggle’, to find an outcome to the severe difficulties in which they are struggling. Naturally, it is also necessary to criticise their mistakes, severely if need be, but we should criticise their mistakes only to help them positively arrive at the positions of the working class, given that the majority of them have proclaimed this intention.
It is only possible to help them positively by criticising them, but on a threefold condition:
1) Familiarizing them in detail with the actions of the working class, its principles, traditions and forms of action, also its forms of struggle, which are often disconcerting for young people who clearly have no direct experience of the working class and the workers’ movement; getting them to recognize the necessity of the political leadership of the working class in revolutionary struggle.
2) Recognizing the unprecedented novelty, the progressive reality and importance of the actions of ideological rebellion of the educated and intellectual youth, who, shaking certain ideological apparatuses of the imperialist states from within, objectively aid the revolutionary struggle of the working class on the international and national level; familiarizing the working class with this reality.
3) Providing all the scientific explanations that will enable everyone, including young people, to see clearly in the events they have experienced, and to orient themselves on a proper footing in the class struggle, if this is really what they want, opening up correct perspectives for them, and giving them the ideological and political means for correct action.
Paris, 15 March 1969
Translated by David Fernbach
[Originally published in La Pensée, no. 145, May-June 1969. Michel Verret (1927-2017), studied under Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure, and in 1949-50 edited the Communist student periodical Clarté. At this time, he was moving away from Marxism towards the sociology of Bourdieu and Passeron, though he remained a member of the PCF until 1978.]
Cf. pages 35-6 of his text.
[Laurent Salini, a Communist journalist, had recently published Le Mai des prolétaires(Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1969).]
Verret is correct to speak of a process of substitutions.
[The Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, with origins in a Christian trade-union federation, was the reformist rival to the Confédération Générale du Travail, at this time still closely aligned to the Parti Communiste Française. The Parti Socialiste Unifié occupied a position between the PCF and the reformist SFIO. Its national secretary at this time was Michel Rocard, who later became prime minister under Mitterrand.]
In speaking of leftism, and quoting the work that Lenin devoted to this question, we should remember that Lenin spoke of working-class leftism, not of student leftism.
Above all, we should remember that in the conclusion of his book, Lenin wrote: ‘Clearly, the mistake represented by left doctrinairism in the Communist movement is at the present time a thousand times less dangerous and less serious than the mistake represented by right doctrinairism.’
He added that working-class leftism was an infantile disorder that ‘in certain conditions’ could be ‘easily cured’.
I risk a personal note here.
Despite differences of object (student leftism instead of working-class leftism) and conjuncture, I believe Lenin’s comparative judgment on these respective dangers is still valid. I would add: especially in the student-intellectual milieu, left doctrinairism represents a mistake a thousand times less dangerous and less serious than the mistake represented by right doctrinairism.
On the other hand, I would add that the circumstances of the present conjuncture risk making this mistake extremely hard to ‘treat’: if only because, appealing to this conjuncture, those ‘affected’, or at least many of them, fiercely refuse, and will refuse, the ‘treatment’ offered by some people, even supposing that these truly wish to help them. This refusal, and its form, are one of the objective elements of the situation in the ‘student’ milieu that it would be senseless not to take seriously, if only so as to analyse its reasons, which do not pertain to the ‘psycho’ or ‘psycho-sociological’. Everyone with real experience of pedagogical and political practice in the student milieu, and above all the school student milieu, is aware of this.
Waldeck Rochet noted this for France, in his report to the central committee of 8 July 1968, in the following terms (his own emphasis): ‘Until now the influence that our Party has exercised in student milieus, while certainly not negligible, is however clearly insufficient, and this was naturally experienced in a negative fashion in the recent movement.’ [Waldeck Rochet was the general secretary of the PCF from 1964 to 1972.]