A Visit to the Paris CNT - Ben Debney

Between May and August 1998 I travelled from Melbourne. Australia to England, France and Spain. During my holiday in Europe I visited a number of revolutionary unions, including the "Vignoles CNT" in Paris and Lyon, who were expelled from the International Workers' Association at its last congress in Madrid.

Article from Black Flag #216 1999.

I arrived at the CNT offices at 33 rue des Vignoles in the middle of a festival to commemorate the events of May '68. There were a lot of people hanging around. red and black flags were draped all over the place. people were standing around drinking and talking. I tried my eight-months-at-university-French on the person minding the front table, and as soon as she asked me to speak in English we got along OK.

During the afternoon a few films were shown. The one I sat down to watch briefly showed people packed like sardines walking down a Parisian boulevard. holding hands and singing "L'Internationale", people tearing branches off trees to make barricades, people clashing with the police at nighttime, and so on. There were a lot of young people, people in their mid-twenties. and a lot of women watching the film.

After the film I went and had a look at the literature tables that had been set up. There were a lot of good books there, histories of the First International, Bakunin's Collected Works, and so on. The Parisian CNT had also been very busy publishing their own - "La Confederation Generale du Travail" and "Action Directe" by Emile Pouget, "Communisme Libertaire", French translation of the resolution on Libertarian Communism adopted by the Saragossa Congress of the Spanish CNT in May 1936. "La Colon de Fer", a very thick book by Abel Paz. a history of an agrarian collective established during the Spanish Revolution that refused to go along with the collaborationist policy of the majority of the CNT-E in 1937, "La Collectivite de Calanda", another history of revolutionary Spain, as well as many others. The Paris CNT had also produced the second edition of "Les Temps Maudits", a theoretical review which it had started the previous year. Of course, there were copies of Le Combat Syndicaliste all over the place, as well as publications from the various industrial branches of the Paris CNT: "Le Travail leer du Batiment", from the Syndicat Unifie du Batiment (building workers), "Classes en mum" (Classes in Struggle, mind the pun), from the Federation des Travailleurs de l'Education. "Le Combat Syndicaliste dans le PTT." from the postal workers, and so on.

In keeping with the May 68 theme, the Paris CNT had produced large posters with slogans such as. "May 68 was libertarian, us also!", the well-known May 68 image of the worker with a machine putting money into a bosses pocket, and then into a bucket with the words, “the boss needs you, you don't need him", "they profit always, nothing changed". "the next time, we'll be organised", and others with similar themes.

Besides their publishing and journalistic efforts, the Paris CNT was also involved in a whole bunch of social actions. There was an action almost every day I was in Paris; if I wanted to, I could go to the CNT offices in the evening and find out what was planned for the next day. Similarly, there were a number of actions in Lyon, including an anti-Front Nationale demonstration which the CNT and the Federation Anarchists participated in. While in Paris I went to an action outside an arms exposition in the suburbs, where people from a wide range of groups had gathered outside to bang on the metal gates with metal rods, to make as much noise as humanly possible so as to remind the criminals inside that there were people outside who knew what they were up to: another day I went to a demonstration outside the Sorbonne against education cuts, where President Jospin was attending some sort of function. There were also others that I heard about, an action against the deportation of sans-papiers (immigrants without papers) where CNT members took direct action to try to stop trains containing them from leaving. I was given a package by a CNT comrade containing about 50 different leaflets. which I took to mean that they weren't exactly sitting around on their backsides talking about the historical inevitability of the workers' revolution, or wasting time slagging other people off for not being as anarchist as themselves, or whatever...

The activity and agitation of the collectives and commissions such as the Anti-Expulsions Committee, the Women's Commission of the Paris CNT, No Parasani (an anti-fascist federation), SHARP, the Free Transport Collective in Lyon, and others organised around particular economic and social issues which members of the Paris CNT were involved in, appeared to have something to do with its size and momentum. I didn't ask enough questions to find out what relationship each of these groups had to the CNT, but it seemed that they had a particularly important role within the movement, as a kind of revolving door between social issues on the one hand, and economic issues on the other.

The revolving door appeared to operate in the following way: commissions and collectives organised around particular social issues by members of a revolutionary union got newcomers or outsiders involved in active resistance to the racist deportation of blacks. or to the patriarchal oppression of women, for instance.

At any rate, there were members of the Paris CNT who were also very active in these other groups as well, and there is no doubt in my, mind that the amount of visibility and respect they gained from participating in these particular struggles attracted people to the revolutionary union.

The participation of members of the CNT in those groups, and the amount of effort put into them, appeared to have a positive effect in two ways: firstly, for the CNT by being able to act as a positive force in what were essentially groups organised for negative purposes by being able to bridge the gap between being critical of the current social order and wanting to do something to change it.

Secondly, it also appeared to have a positive effect on the members of the Paris CNT: not once did I come across what one comrade here in Australia describes as "narky-syndicalism": the mental affliction whereby a revolutionary syndicalist is driven to excessive hostility of everything not specifically orientated towards the point of production, an extreme hatred of so-called "lifestylism" and everything else that distracts one from the issue of work (I'm not sure if the word is used anywhere else, but in Australia "narky” means to be irritable, or argumentative). The members of the Paris CNT clearly understood that, if it is to have any relevance to present-day realities, the revolutionary unionist movement can only grow by means of a practical process, by the application of the principles to every-day life (as opposed to the spouting of abstract theory), and that that process required a little time and patience. Equally importantly, they also showed, for all the ideologues out there, that there are other things in life to be concerned about besides straight economics and the nature of work. Some of them were amongst the most rounded individuals I met the whole time I was in Europe.

If it wasn't absolutely perfect in every single way, the Paris CNT didn't seem so bad that it needed to be kicked out of the IWA. On the contrary, it seemed to be most definitely worth having as an affiliate. As corny as it might sound, when I went to Europe I had hoped to find a something which had resembled the histories I had read about the Spanish Revolution, and, generally speaking, that's how the Paris CNT was. The people I met were very warm, intelligent and open-minded, and were less concerned with mudslinging and proving themselves the holders of the correct ideological position or the high moral ground, than getting on with the job of building their revolutionary union movement.

Given the level of organisation and the culture of tolerance, open-mindedness and inclusiveness that I experienced, the expulsion of the Paris CNT seems to me to be a tragedy. If the Paris CNT is one of the few revolutionary unions to have made any headway in recent years, and if, parallel to their physical development, has been theoretical and practical development, then perhaps there are some within the IWA who find the application of the principles of revolutionary unionism to everyday life threatening to some niche they've carved for themselves on the margins of society, or perhaps to their own lack of success. Perhaps the reason is simply that, because an organisation is growing, and if founded by anarchists is not longer purely anarchist, it becomes a threat to the ideological purists who want to keep things nice and secure, if a little uneventful. Maybe the reasons are simpler still, a possible clue being found on the front of a Paris CNT circular which reads, "il est plus facile de critiquer que de construire" (it is easier to criticise than construct). There would appear to be no shortage of cases in the IWA's recent history where ideological witch-hunting was used as cheap substitute for constructive criticism.

Whatever the reason for the explosion of the Paris CNT, the purpose of revolutionary unionism is to educate people in the ways and means of libertarian, revolutionary organisation as part of a process of practical action, as part of a process of organisation and struggle on the basis of common economic and social interests. Part of that process involves admitting people into the organisation who don't have a good grip on libertarian principles. Another part of the process involves allowing them the lime to make mistakes and to have those mistakes corrected, and thus to learn the practise of revolutionary unionism. "Impurity", therefore, the presence of newcomers with little knowledge or experience of revolutionary unionism (much less anarchist philosophy), would seem to be the indicator of movement, as opposed to stagnation. It would appear to be the indicator of a revolutionary organisation with an established process of physical growth and intellectual development through practical education.

Black Flag note: The French Confederation National du Travail split several years ago - the two factions being known as Paris or Bordeaux, after where their confederal bureaux were sited. At the XXth IWA Congress, the Paris CNT (also known as the Vignoles CNT) was expelled by two votes to one.

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Aug 9 2020 10:10


Black Flag magazine

  • Perhaps there are some ... who find the application of the principles of revolutionary unionism to everyday life threatening to some niche they've carved for themselves

    Ben Debney

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