The revolutionary movement which showed its head in France in May and June, 1968, has been maligned and misunderstood by the capitalist press, the Communist Party press, and the presses of "revolutionary" grouplets.

According to the liberal capitalist press, the student revolt and general strike can be understood in terms of the "peculiar characteristics" of Gaullist France. According to the Communist Party press, the university occupations and the general strike represent a reform movement, with students fighting for a "modern university" and workers for the satisfaction of material demands, both groups being disrupted by a "handful of madmen and adventurers." According to some "revolutionary" grouplets, the movement in France is either an example of the efficacy of "revolutionary vanguards" and "leaders," or else it is an example of the lack of vanguards and leaders. There is also an eclectic version : the "rise" of the movement illustrates the efficacy of the revolutionary vanguards, and its "decline" illustrates what happens to a movement which has no vanguard. [3]

These "explanations" do not explain why anything happened in France in May, 1968. Student revolts and factory occupations are not among the "characteristics" of French society, nor did "peculiar" conditions for such behavior appear in France precisely in May, 1968. The "normal" behavior of students and workers in capitalist society, the desire of students for more privileges and of workers for more goods, does not explain why students and workers ceased acting "normally" and started struggling to destroy the system of privilege.

The explosion of May-June 1968 is a sudden break with the regularities of French society, and it cannot be explained in terms of those regularities. The social conditions, the consciousness of students and workers, the strategies of "revolutionary" sects, had all existed before May, 1968, and had not given rise to a student revolt, a general strike, or a mass movement determined to destroy capitalism. Something new appeared in May, an element which was not regular but unique, an element which transformed the "normal" consciousness of students and workers, an element which represented a radical break with what was known before May, 1968.

The new element, the spark which set off the explosion, was "a handful of madmen" who did not consider themselves either a revolutionary party or a vanguard. The story of the student movement which began in Nanterre with a demonstration to end the war in Vietnam has been told elsewhere. [4] The actions of this student movement were "exemplary actions"; they set off a process of continuous escalation, each step involving a larger sector of the population.

One of the steps in this process of escalation was the occupation of Censier, annex of the University of Paris Faculty of Letters ( Sorbonne ). Not as publicised as the actions or personalities of the Nanterre student movement, the activity which developed at Censier during the last two weeks in May parallels and supplements that of the March 22 Movement. This essay will try to describe the steps in the process of escalation as they were experienced and interpreted by the occupants of Censier.

What happened in Censier cannot be explained in terms of French everyday life. The occupants of Censier suddenly cease to be unconscious, passive objects shaped by particular combinations of social forces; they become conscious, active subjects who begin to shape their own social activity.

The occupants of Censier aim at the destruction of capitalist social relations, but they do not define themselves as the historical subject who will overthrow capitalism. Their actions, like those of the March 22 Movement, are exemplary actions. Their task is to communicate the example to a larger subject : the workers. To make the example overflow from the university to the working population, the Censier occupants create a new social form : worker-student action committees.

Each action is designed to go beyond itself. The aim of the occupants of Censier is not to create a self-governing commune in that building, but to set off the occupation of factories. The occupation of Censier is a break with continuity; the occupants' aim is to create other breaks.

The occupants do not proceed on the basis of what is "normal," but on the basis of what is possible. Radical breaks with everyday life are not normal, but they are possible. A movement with the slogan "anything is possible" proceeds on the basis of the potential, not the usual.

The task of these revolutionaries is not to define the conditions which make revolution impossible, but to create the conditions which make revolution possible. This orientation is probably the most radical break of March 22 and Censier with the traditional Western Left, which begins by pointing to the "objective conditions" ( for example, the apathy, self-interest and dependence of workers ) which make revolution impossible. The French movement begins by pushing beyond the "objective limits," an orientation which it shares with a handful of Cuban revolutionaries and Vietnamese revolutionaries who began struggling at a time when any analysis of "objective conditions" would have led to a prediction of certain defeat. The French revolutionaries broke out of the psychology of defeat, the outlook of the loser, and began struggling. Their struggle, like that of the Cubans and the Vietnamese, was exemplary : the example overflowed to sectors of the population who are far stronger and more numerous than the initial revolutionaries.

In the spirit of March 22 and Censier, this essay will not deal with the "objective conditions" of French society, but with the exemplary actions which ruptured those conditions; it will not deal with the apathy, self-interest and dependence which make the self-organization of workers and students impossible, but with the role of Censier in creating the radical break which made their self-organization possible; it will not deal with the conditions which prevent communication and cooperation among workers and students, but with the role of Censier in making such communication and cooperation possible. The essay will not try to explain why the Censier movement did not get further, but why it got as far as it did.


[3] According to one version, the Revolutionary Communist Youth ( J.C.R. ) played the "central leadership role" ( The Militant, July 5, 1968 ). According to another, students played the leadership role ( The Militant, June 21, 1968 ). According to a third version, "the action committees played a vanguard role of central importance" ( The Militant, June 28, 1968 ). Yet according to slightly different "vanguard revolutionaries" the movement "failed" because it had no vanguard; they conclude in a headline : "Vital Link of Revolutionary Party Still Needed" and they point out in the article that "the general strike has confirmed the perspective that this paper has put forward over recent years" ( Socialist Worker -- London -- July, 1968 ). The same conclusion was drawn in the Guardian, June 1, 1968.

[4] Notably by the "madmen" themselves in : Mouvement du 22 Mars, Ce n'est qu'un debut, continuons le combat ( This Is Only the Beginning, Let's Continue the Struggle). The English translation of the central parts of this book was published in CAW : No. 3, Fall, 1968.