Introduction to Maos en France by Michèle Manceaux, Éditions Gallimard, 1972. Scanned from Sartre, Jean-Paul. Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. 162-171.

The Maoists in France
by Jean-Paul Sartre

I am not a Maoist. I think that is why I was asked to write an introduction to these investigations. In most of them, the militants' testimony is objective but very much confined to their group. Since I am addressing a larger public here, perhaps it would be better to introduce the Maoists from the outside first, as they appear to their friends. I will describe the three characteristics which struck me when I became acquainted with several of them and which still strike me as I read over this collection of interviews.

One of their ideas is that a socialist must be violent, because he has a goal in mind which the ruling class rejects completely. Apparently this idea was adopted around 1950. Khrushchev came and laid the foundations for "peaceful coexistence," which amounted to endorsing revisionism. Then de Gaulle took power here and the leftist parties were crushed. No one talked about violence any more. The left lay low, waiting for an electoral victory to give them power in a peaceful way. In the sixties, one could not talk about the sound principle of revolutionary violence without being called an intellectual adventurist; 1958-1968 were years which can be spoken of only in very modest terms.

And then violence broke out and raged over the whole area. Actually, neither the students nor the workers started it. In a somewhat confused way they announced certain major demands which the bourgeoisie did not want to listen to, and instantly they became the objects of police violence. In this way they came to know their own violence; they realized that the old bourgeois society was doomed and was only protecting itself from death with the clubs of policemen. Betrayed, the movement seemed to end. Not because of failure; there had never been any question of taking power then, except in the minds of a few politicians who did not fight.

When the violence seemed to be coming to an end, there were sonic groups who tried to keep it alive among themselves and to revive it among the masses. The Maoists were the first of these; from the beginning they adopted Mao Tsetung's slogan, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." There were no guns, which means that in France the masses had not reached the stage of armed struggle. Even so the Maoists, who were very aware of file long march ahead of them, wanted first of all to reawaken revolutionary violence by effective, more or less Symbolic, pinpoint actions -- not to put it back to sleep the way the leftist parties and the unions had. They renewed an old tradition which for a decade had apparently been eclipsed. At first they were merely active, without asking for anything and without forming any theory for their action. They knew and accepted the inevitable consequence of this strategy: since they wanted to overthrow the bourgeoisie by force, they were sooner or later going to fall before the arsenal of bourgeois laws. That is what they first taught me, or rather retaught me: it was no longer the moment to sign petitions, or to make speeches in front of crowds at authorized meetings. (Since so many meetings are not allowed to take place, we must ask why this particular one which we are about to hold has been allowed by the authorities.) A revolutionary is committed to illegal action.

They went even farther. When they asked me to be editor of La Cause du peuple they were trying -- and it will be seen that they clearly succeeded -- to show that even though they took responsibility for their illegality, the government could not try to turn the repressive laws of the bourgeoisie against them without itself stepping outside the law, outside its own law. On the day of the trial of Le Dantec and Le Bris, former editors of the paper, Marcellin thought to make a bold move by dissolving the Gauche prolétarienne, an act of bravado which he accompanied by an awkwardly cynical speech. I am dissolving this political party, he said, because its militants will necessarily try to reorganize it and I will be able to throw them in prison. He was wrong. The Maoists had seen this coming long before and did not intend to put their little group back together, but rather to grow, to reach other sectors. They felt that the forms of action associated with the Gauche prolétarienne had fulfilled their function and that their time was over. What remained was La Cause du peuple which, Marcellin decided, was the organ of the Gauche prolétarienne. To publish it therefore amounted to resurrecting a faction that had been dissolved. During Le Dantec's trial, the public prosecutor -- in other words the spokesman for the Minister of the Interior -- demanded that the magistrate suspend publication of the newspaper for one year. It did not work; the magistrate, no doubt thinking he had already gone too far, refused.

Since it had not been banned, La Cause du peuple could continue to appear. Yet starting in June 1970, the government began seizing the issues at the printer's even though no judge was familiar with their contents and therefore could not legally order the seizure, The government had deliberately placed itself outside the law. As a matter of fact, in the fall of 1968 Geismar had intended to publish a journal in which "the masses would inform the masses" of oppression in various areas as well as of what actions had been taken, so that individuals who were carrying out their own struggles would never feel isolated for lack of information. The project came to nothing but was later taken up again under the name of La Cause du peuple. Thus the newspaper which was intended to be suppressed now belonged both to everyone and to no one in particular. For the most part the articles came from workers and country people, who described in their own writing or to interviewers their strikes, their acts of sabotage, their occupation of the lands of absentee landlords. They spoke not in the language of one party but in the language of the people, and the violence that came to light came from the people.

Tens of thousands of copies were saved from the police and sent all over France. Marcellin, who could not stop the newspaper from coming out and who was not willing to bring charges against its third editor (as he should have, according to the law) had the sellers and distributors arrested in Paris and in the country. Not trusting the "correctionelle" [Court of Summary Jurisdiction], he had them prosecuted before an emergency court, the Cour de Sûreté de L'État [State Security Court]. This body did everything he wanted it to do, even compounding most of the sentences with complete loss of civil rights. Young people found carrying only two copies of the same issue were sent to prison without the possibility of suspended sentences. During this time the "Friends of La Cause du peuple" distributed it with impunity in the streets of Paris.

After having fought for a long time, straining the law again and again, the government realized that since it represented the bourgeois law, it could not continue these illegal practices, One day it simply withdrew the policemen who had been laying siege to the printers for months, and all of a sudden we saw La Cause du peuple on the newsstands. Side by side with France-Soir and l'Humanité, it seemed just as illegal as it had in the preceding months when it had been banned. Its articles -- brutal, unrefined, simplistic, but true -- resounded with the voice of the people, and that is just what its bourgeois readers could not tolerate. They learned that the masses violently rejected slavery, in other words, the exploitative society in general. The bourgeois could not listen to this voice. They could put up with the revisionists talking to them about the masses, but not the masses talking among themselves without caring whether or not the bourgeois were listening. In the end, it had been proved that La Cause du peuple was by its very nature opposed to the legality of its capitalist society. Yet the government could not take the slightest step to make it an outlaw without becoming an outlaw itself. The Maoists had shown that the only relationship possible between the ruling class and the masses was a violent one.

Well, the revisionists will say, so the Maoists believe in the spontaneity of the masses, a myth which Lenin put an end to long ago. They really deserve the name given them -- "Mao-Spontex." In the interview with jean which you will read here, the true significance of this accusation is revealed. In 1968 Jean was an organizer at Contrexéville. Working conditions were horrifying; they called the factory "Buchenwald." But there bad never been a strike in all the twelve years of its existence -- this was the effect of terror. Atomizing forces acted constantly on the workers and serialized them. A group is said to be a serial group when each of its members, though lie may be in the same circumstances as all the others, remains alone and defines himself according to his neighbor insofar as his neighbor thinks like the others. That is, each is something other than himself and behaves like someone else, who in turn is other than himself. The workers articulated and confirmed serial thinking as though it were their own thinking, but it was actually the thinking of the ruling class, who imposed it on the workers from the outside. Not that they found it either accurate or clear, but it justified their passivity by its reference to larger considerations. As Jean rightly says, if by some chance the I.F.O.P. or the S.O.F.R.E.S. [1] were to conduct a survey of the Contrexéville workers, it would find that many of the answers stemmed from serial ideology: racism ("You can't do anything with immigrant workers"), defiance toward the surrounding communities ("The Vosgiens are country people; they don't understand us"), sexual chauvinism ("Women are too stupid"), and so on. By its very principles, this type of survey has the effect of serializing, and it is being conducted elsewhere on subjects who are already serialized. In this sense Lenin is right. The mistake lies in believing that vital thought can be separated from action, that it is the specialty of "intellectuals," while action (without thought?) is the specialty of manual workers.

Actually, there is another, more profound thought which the ruling class represses by its atomization, and which is the workers' thought: it is the rejection of their condition. Exploited and oppressed in a basic way, they cannot become aware of this situation without revolting against it in the most radical fashion. But when the masses are atomized and serialized, when each person feels alone and partly resigned, this thought does not come to them in a recognizable form. It is masked by serial thought, which separates them and justifies the separation. Yet look at what happens as soon as an exterior change affects production, reveals the actual conditions at one point in the process, and provokes a particular, concrete, and precise refusal on the part of the workers. The series is then replaced by a group whose behavior expresses -- though often without formulating it -- the radical refusal to be exploited. At first, serial thinking opposes practical unity, in the same way that atomization and serialism oppose the formation of the group. It would be useless to refute such thinking with arguments, because it arises from the serial formation and expresses it perfectly. But as soon as concrete action calls for unification -- even if it is only temporary -- serial thinking no longer has a place, because the group can never think or act in a serial way. Jean shows clearly that racism, sexism, and so forth, disappear the moment action is taken. This happens not because the mechanisms have been noticed, identified, and verbally denounced, but because they are facets of the separatist idea, which is no longer needed. From that point on, as jean says, the masses progress by leaps and bounds.

In the beginning at Contrexéville, when the workers were completely encumbered and restrained by bourgeois ideology, it would have been useless to suggest to them anything more than a symbolic, one-hour-long strike. But soon the preparations for this strike brought about the beginnings of the unification it required. Of their own accord the masses transformed the symbolic work stoppage into a true strike, an effective and open-ended strike which was inspired by the real thinking of the group -- the unconditional refusal to be exploited. This decision, which surprised even Jean himself, shows that when the masses begin to act, they inevitably go even farther than the agitators dare hope.

In a period of serialization, therefore, the first job for the organizer is to support the most left-wing faction, even (or most of all) if it is confused and timid, and to propose a specific action, however modest. If the workers accept the proposal, the second and most important duty of the organizer is to remain sensitive to their developing consciousness and go along with them, not to try to lead them. What remains now is the question of their unity. There is no doubt that after the strike, even if it is successful, the group is in danger of falling back into seriality. This means that a party of the masses, as the Maoists envisage it, should be constantly sensitive to the group, should take its cue from the group and keep attempting to bring the periods of seriality closer to the periods of action. In some sense the party would become primarily the memory of the masses. This is what the Maoists call "spontaneity." It simply means that revolutionary thinking is born of the people and that the people alone can develop it fully through their acts. And of course, they are aware that in France there is no such thing yet as the People. For what is the People if not the masses as a whole freeing themselves by force from seriality? But wherever the masses reach the stage of praxis locally, they are already the People at the beginning of its realization.

That is the Maoists' second idea. Though the third is less explicit, it is no less important. It derives from the other two and you will find it on every page of this book. It is often -- and in my opinion wrongly -- called anti-authoritarianisim. It goes without saying that the Maoists should be Marxist in the same sense as Guevara when be told me in 1959: "It is not our fault that the truth is Marxist." But one could do as Engels often did, particularly in Anti-Dühring, and in place of the history that men make, substitute an economy which is made by them but also without them, in a sense. For the Maoists, on the other hand, everywhere that revolutionary violence is born among the masses, it is immediately and profoundly moral. This is because the workers, who have up to that point been the objects of capitalist authoritarianism, become the subjects of their own history, even if only for a moment. The bourgeoisie, with all its "knowledge," never says more than "one thing: obey" [2]. Many young people, fed up with working within plans established by the ruling bureaucracy, have joined the struggle of the masses because of its morality.

I know that the revisionists make morality out to be a superstructure of capitalist society. According to them the militant should not trouble himself about it; he should concentrate on practical rules and aim only at efficiency. And it is true that morality is the superstructure of the ruling class, but it is also true that this morality is a joke, since it is necessarily built upon exploitation. Yet even though the economic and political motives of the explosions of popular violence are obvious, the explosions cannot be explained except by the fact that these motives were morally appreciated by the masses. That is, the economic and political motives helped the masses to understand what is the highest immorality -- the exploitation of man by man. So when the bourgeois claims that his conduct is guided by a "humanistic" morality -- work, family, nation -- be is only disguising his deep-seated immorality and trying to alienate the workers: he will never be moral. Whereas the workers and the country people, when they revolt, are completely moral because they are not exploiting anyone. That is the reason why the intellectual has nothing to teach them. Of course he has discovered exploitation and oppression, but only in an abstract way and as a simple contradiction of bourgeois morality. Only from the people, only by joining in a popular action, can he learn what it means to refuse to obey.

What the masses want first of all, if the Maoists are to be believed, is freedom. They are not refusing to work, but to do work that has been imposed on them -- to work in rhythms, for example, that are established with profit in mind rather than the workers. It was this elementary demand for freedom which transformed the occupation of factories in 1936 and the lock-ins in 1967-1971 into festivals. A great deal was said about these lock-ins, and after some hesitation the organs of the left acknowledged that they constituted a form of spontaneous fighting invented by the masses and were therefore legitimate. Only the Maoists also recognized a specific affirmation of freedom of work. This affirmation shows that there is nothing idealistic about the aspiration toward freedom and that its source is always the concrete and material conditions of production. In each case, however, the material conditions do not prevent the workers from understanding that theirs is an attempt to put together a moral society -- in other words, a society in which man, no longer alienated, will be able to find himself in his real relationship with the group.

Violence, spontaneity, morality: for the Maoists these are the three immediate characteristics of revolutionary action. The Maoists are not being overly simplistic; they do not say that theory is practice, but rather that theory never appears except in practice. This is the source of their agility in conceiving and carrying through local action which always originates among the masses. Theirs are struggles to force the establishment of a free revolutionary press and popular courts, struggles which are less and less symbolic and isolated and more and more realistic -- like their fights against racism. Their struggles tend to be organized for the larger purpose of joining together to form the beginnings of a politics of the masses, a politics that must necessarily come into being. The classical leftist parties have remained in the nineteenth century, in the time of competitive capitalism. But though the Maoist movement is still in its first stages, these militants, with their anti-authoritarian praxis, appear to be the only revolutionary force capable of adapting to new forms of the class struggle in a period of organized capitalism.

[1] Public opinion polls. I.F.O.P.: Institut Français d'Opinion Publique. S.O.F.R.E.S.: Societé Française d'Enquêtes par Sondage. [Translators' note.] [back]
[2] Cahiers de la Gauche prolétarienne, no. 2, May 1970, p. 69. [back]

© Copyright 1998 Patrick Beherec (or original author)
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