The Critique of the School in Post-’68 French Thought: Interview with Roger Establet
In this second interview of the "Critique of the School in Post-’68 French Thought" series, Roger Establet details his experience as a member of the Althusserian research group on "the school" and, in particular, Pierre Bourdieu's influence on their thinking.
This is an interview with Roger Establet on the ‘critique of the school in post-’68 French thought’. Establet was a member of the research group on the school along with other Althusserians (Étienne Balibar, Christian Baudelot, Pierre Macherey and Michel Tort). In this interview, Establet recounts in detail the background of this collective work and the resulting book, L’école capitaliste en France (co-authored with Christian Baudelot).
The school was a contentious point for post-’68 French philosophers. Let's start with the fundamental question: why was the school so problematic at the time? On this subject, you wrote with Christian Baudelot L’école capitaliste en France. Why was the school such an important figure for Althusser and for Althusserians like you?
I can’t answer you in a general way, only as far as I’m concerned myself. My father was a hospital employee. He didn’t have a baccalaureate, only some secondary education. And my mother was a typist. She taught me to read, I don’t know why, before I went to school. That served me well. In my case, my family were all left-wing, more or less. There were socialists, there were communists, there were anarchists, but it was more a question of the people. My father had risen as high as he could in the hospital system. The view of left-wing people that I got from the people around me was not the intellectual left. I had one uncle, Roger, who was a printer. Another uncle, Henri, was a truck driver. My mother was a typist. My father made his career in the hospitals, but he was still an employee. For all these people, there was one thing that was catastrophic – it was money, capital, the right. On the other hand, things like the hospital, like the school, everything that was state-run, was somehow good. So, when I was at the lycée I wanted to be a schoolteacher, because, if you were a schoolteacher, you got paid. As a professor, people said, you could do a bit better. So, I set my sights on being a professor. For me, that was the course of study. Then, at the time I was studying, all the social problems in France were completely overshadowed by the Algerian War. When we were at the École Normale Supérieure, people like me who came from working-class backgrounds were the exception, there weren't many of us. There were some, but only two or three. Whether it was intellectuals, intellectuals in a kind of colonial style, everyone apart from a minority mobilised against the Algerian War. During all this time, that was all we were concerned with. The proper thing was to demonstrate in the street. We were right. The year I passed the agrégation I was at the Secours Populaire together with Jean-Marie Villégier, a colleague who passed the agrégation in philosophy at the same time as me, when there were the massacres of Algerians in Paris. And we visited the hospitals and went to see the director of the École Normale to inform him of this. And he said to us: ‘Oh, you’ve come to see me because you don’t have an extra year.’ But it wasn’t because of that. We didn’t have the extra year for a completely different reason. But he thought we were seeing him for something like that. But we didn’t care.
And then, when the Algerian War ended, we found ourselves faced with a very general reflection on many problems. And, in particular, you had the French Communist Party, because I was a member of the Communist Party at one point during the Algerian War. But what did that do? There were some who were left-wing Christians, others were in the UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France), we were all in the same demonstrations, we argued, because we didn’t have the same newspapers, but the problem was to know what was the best way to mobilise the most friends. When we found ourselves in this situation, we found ourselves faced with an analysis of the French situation by the Communist Party that had to be taken into account. Until then, it did what it wanted. We were Marxists, I had read Marx for a very long time, I was a Marxist, but I’ve explained to you why. For the Communist Party, the class struggle was inside the factory. The school, the hospitals, everything that was state-run, they didn’t talk about that. And, afterwards, we found ourselves faced with the clichés of the Communist Party, inadmissible things such as, for example, Maurice Thorez defining the state of France as absolute pauperisation. He said that in France we were becoming poorer year after year. So, as soon as we went back to the data, even for the workers, it was false. We realised that it was wrong. Why was this? Not only because of Althusser, but because of other people.
For us, someone who was very important was Pierre Bourdieu. Particularly because of his great book, at the time of the Algerian War, on work and workers in Algeria. I reported on this to the Communist Party, thanks to Althusser. What did Bourdieu show in Algeria? It was that the situation at the end of the war did not mean the end of the class struggle in Algeria. There were Algerian petty bourgeois who were thinking of taking over. There were field studies of Algerian proletarians... From that moment on, everything we learned was called into question. That doesn’t mean that we were going to throw Marx’s Capital out of the window. But it does mean that we had to rethink. Because the Communist Party argued as follows: things are so bad in our country that one day or other we’ll all come together and build socialism by peaceful means. So, Louis Althusser and many others were led to reflect on the concrete situation of institutions, whether it was madness or the school system. And for us, for Baudelot and me, there was the coincidence between the ideological state apparatus, which allowed me to be on the side of Marxism, and, on the other hand, the educational inequalities that Bourdieu showed. And this is what allowed us to reflect on the school system, in particular, by doing a lot of statistical work. In the army, as there was more work to be done, they assigned me to educational service. And that allowed me to read Célestin Freinet, the great French pedagogue. And, afterwards, thanks to Étienne Balibar, who spoke to me about Mao, I said to myself: ‘Well! There are some similar things between Freinet and the Cultural Revolution. Intellectual and manual learning had to be combined.’ And that enabled me to reflect on the French school system, and to work statistically, because Marxist theory is all very well, but you have to observe reality with data. Baudelot had already worked on statistics, and we got together and tried to do that. And we shifted – and this is where Althusser and Marxism came in handy – the inequality that Bourdieu observed at the top of the school system among students to the bottom. Because what concerned me was that too many French kids left school without knowing how to read or write. That’s what concerned me. And I said to myself: ‘If something had to be changed in this system, that’s what we should tackle.’
So Bourdieu was a very important figure for you. I have two questions, then. The first question: what was the fundamental difference between your theory and Bourdieu's theory?
It goes back a long way... But what I thought was that Bourdieu always had his eye on the top of the school system. He was right, because what he said about the top of the school system is justified. The inequalities are there. But we were more concerned with the bottom: for example, repetition when students repeat the year they have just finished. So that’s why we did what we did in L’école primaire divise... to show that repeating a year was something very serious, at least for the working classes, for the underprivileged classes. The other day, I was talking to a friend that we work with, and I told him that the current minister wanted to bring back repetition. And I said: ‘Frankly, repeating a year is a serious matter.’ And he – he was a son of the bourgeoisie, from up there – replied: ‘I repeated a year.’ Of course. But for someone at the bottom, losing a year, the social cost of a lost year is enormous. It’s Marx again. Sometimes Bourdieu tends to forget this element of cost.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
Yes, in your book, the situation of the final year in technical school is meticulously analysed. Another question: in Althusser, in Bourdieu, and in you too, there is the subject of reproduction. Why was the subject of reproduction analysed so much at this time?
Thanks to the lycée surveys, we saw for the first time what the social situations of individuals and their parents were. That was a first element. It’s not at all the same; even if the diploma erases some differences, it doesn’t erase everything. That would be more like Bourdieu. It doesn’t erase everything. The differences are there, they are even massive. And then, it showed us something interesting to pursue. It goes beyond what Althusser did. You have to do surveys, you have to get to work in the statistical field. And, at the same time, Bourdieu, who at the beginning was someone who was rather inspired by Max Weber etc., found Marx all the same. This made it possible to justify a synthesis between two theories that were quite distinct in origin. And at the foundation, there was empirical data.
Was Althusser’s article on the ideological state apparatuses the theoretical basis for your book?
Of course, in part, yes. And in part, also, the analyses that Bourdieu was conducting. It meant that Marxism was not hostile to a critical analysis of things like state institutions. For a long time, the Communist Party had blocked our view of this and it was only Althusser who opened our eyes to it.
Would Althusser have read Bourdieu’s book before he started writing his article?
What I know is that Althusser was a great friend of Bourdieu. They saw each other very often. One day Althusser told me: ‘I met Bourdieu, and he said to me about his Travail et travailleurs en Algérie: “It’s strange, every time I do an analysis, it seems to me that I meet Marx,”’ although Marx is not mentioned in Travail et travailleurs en Algérie.
To focus on Althusser a bit, why do you think Althusser saw the school as the dominant state ideological apparatus? Why wasn’t it the family, for example?
As far as I’m concerned, I have to explain myself and my deepest wishes. In my professional life, what I preferred was teaching more than research or publishing books. I am interested in that, but what interested me most was training people. I had started out with an idyllic idea of the school system, which was an exception compared with inequalities of money and so on. And then we found ourselves with Bourdieu’s surveys and all that. And maybe we went too far in putting that first. Maybe we should have put the family first. But I think that the school still plays a very important role in the family. When you see all the people who get extra tuition for their children, compared to what I knew. It was my mother who taught me to read. She didn’t have a teaching method. That’s why I succeeded in the school system. I saw proof of it.
Another question: did the 1968 events influence your work on the school? Was the theme of reproduction influenced by the 1968 events?
I experienced 1968 in Tours. I’m a man on the ground, I’ve never been part of the apparatus. What did I see in 1968? There was a very strong cleavage between the Communist or right-wing teachers and the students. And there were a certain number of teachers, among them some Catholics, including me, because I was influenced by Mao, but we knew nothing about Mao.
The setting in Tours was special. Because I was in Paris and I wanted to go to Tours to be close to the students I was teaching. And not to teach at the Sorbonne. In Tours, I was on the spot. Three-quarters of the staff who taught in Tours lived in Paris. There was a colleague who said: ‘We should put the university at the Saint-Pierre-des-Corps station!’ All the teachers got out there. So, there was a conflict which was a bit special because these guys saw the students twice a week, but they had no relationship with the concrete problems which could arise for the students. So, I’m not saying that this could be generalised to the whole of France. I don’t know anything about that, only what I observed. And, on the other hand, there were a certain number of teachers who lived there and who were against maintaining this state of affairs. There weren’t many of them, but there were some.
Were the teachers who came from Paris against the students?
They were not against the students, but they wanted to benefit from the revolt to increase the advantages of the university. Because the university was a small building, they wanted to transform the struggle of ’68 by building the University of Tours, which is what happened. But the transformation of social relations... There were professors who acted in this sense and who were not necessarily ultra-left. I had a colleague who was a linguist, Émile Genouvrier, who was a specialist in orthography, and we used to give Wednesday courses for teachers, to the graduate students who were studying linguistics, sociology or physics, joint courses for teachers. He was a man of the centre politically, he had no declared opinion. But he was in favour of education that worked to bring students and teachers together.
Can I ask the same question in a different way? How could you relate May ’68 to your work?
There were revolts about the education system. There were protests. They continued afterwards. So, how to change all that, it’s not easy... Today, you get the impression of powerlessness. At that time, May ’68, we had the impression that we could change things. And now, there is disaster everywhere for all to see. You saw all the massacres of Muslims, there was a kid who was murdered. Nobody cares. There’s a general feeling that nothing much can be changed. In ’68, everyone believed that reproduction could be broken. Now you get the impression that everything is blocked.
Has the situation of the school changed since ’68?
It’s continued. I would have to redo the statistics, but when you look at the graduates from the technical sections – you have the agricultural technical sections, and the industrial technical sections – they provide jobs, not extraordinary jobs, but a job, for people. All the tertiary sections provide nothing. So, you see people hanging around.
After L’école capitaliste en France, you wrote a book on the petty bourgeoisie. But how did this transition take place, from the school to the petty bourgeoisie?
The classical petty bourgeois studied by Marx was the shopkeeper. We said to ourselves that a guy who has a degree, who doesn’t own any capital, still holds a certain kind of capital, as Bourdieu said very well, very rightly, a symbolic capital, an intellectual capital. That has a value on the market. And so, at that point, we calculated what the guy earned, a bit like a small shopkeeper. It’s a cut of the surplus-value that the capitalist makes on the product. It’s a bit like that. We were guided by that.[book-strip index="2" style="display"]
I would like to ask a question about the organisation of your research group on the school. Étienne Balibar, Christian Baudelot, Pierre Macherey, Michel Tort and yourself participated in this group.
But listen, it’s complicated. Because I was ill, so I didn’t take part in the group. I wanted to take part, there was the group on the school which Althusser had organised. I think that Baudelot took part in it, but I was ill, I had other worries. And then, when I recovered, there was Renée Balibar, Michel Tort, Macherey, and Althusser, of course. And then Christian came to see me in Tours, when I recovered from my illness, and he said to me that if we could work together on the school, we should do that. And, as we were both disciples of Bourdieu, we had a statistical job to do, because all these good people, all my colleagues who were competent in their fields, knew nothing about statistics. So, we had to do some very hard work, especially at that time. I learned to program to be able to get data out. And, when we did L’école capitaliste en France, we had quoted Mao Zedong and all that; Althusser didn’t want, at that time, to piss off and leave the Communist Party. So, when we did this book, it was supposed to appear in ‘Théorie’, in Althusser’s collection, but he didn’t publish it in ‘Théorie’. Afterwards, I saw Althusser again, I saw Mme Balibar again, and Christian Baudelot and I helped Michel Tort with his book on IQ. He had developed a certain number of general ideas, and we hunted out empirical data and helped him finish his book.
Could we consider your book and Althusser’s text on the state ideological apparatus as the two main results of this circle?
Perhaps. Althusser’s text impressed me a lot, and especially the idea of ideological recognition: people take over the ideology that has been transmitted.
How did you start working with Baudelot?
When I was doing military service, I knew that there was a sociology post in Paris. I was a philosopher by training, and I said to myself: ‘Well, I have to switch to sociology.’ So, I did a survey for the military on their opinion of military service. Then I went through the data and I became interested in the work of Bourdieu. He was a sociologist who was as far from Marxist concerns as you could find at the time. So, I read his book, and then I started doing statistics: I worked in his research group, and I learnt my trade partly thanks to Bourdieu. Baudelot, for his part, had also worked with Bourdieu, he was a literature teacher. He was in the school team. And he worked with Macherey. And, as we could see that there were fundamental statistical problems in the school that we were capable of dealing with, he came to find me when I was in better shape. He said to me, we’re going to do this.
What I found very interesting in L’école capitaliste en France was the relationship between bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology. In the school, there is always only bourgeois ideology, and proletarian ideology cannot exist. So, is there any possibility of autonomous production of proletarian ideology in the school, or if there is, is it always repressed?
What I see in the world today, for better or worse, if we go back to Lenin’s great text of 1916, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is that the ideologies of those who are the future proletarians are often ideologies of combat, religious ideologies, and nationalisms in the dominated countries. Lenin said so! Afterwards, you can make judgements in the name of secularism, etc. I agree. But what would you do, when you see how Arabs are treated here? These are ideologies of reaction to imperialism. And they are strong everywhere and unpredictable. And here we have these neo-fascist ideologies, as a kind of reaction to that. You saw the results of the elections. In France, there is still something to be afraid of. And it wasn’t the bourgeois that voted for Le Pen.
Translated by David Fernbach