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From the German Left to Socialisme ou Barbarie

from le roman de nos origines - La Banquise No. 2 (1983)

A communist movement, universal in nature, which had set out to conquer the world in capitalism's footsteps, had been led into not taking the offensive except in the centre of Europe. Now it was necessary for it to engage in drawing up an assessment, beginning with itself and with the contradictions of the counter-revolution.

The following revolutionary generation had the advantage of being able to cast a clearer critical gaze on this period, but were to run into an additional difficulty over being able to go back to the source of theories, echoes of which had ended up becoming louder than their initial sound.

The outbreak of the war in 1914 testified to the monstrous bankruptcy of the bourgeois world and the workers' movement. However, after bourgeois humanism and wage-labour reformism had collapsed side by side in the mud of the trenches, both of them acted as if this catastrophe hadn't rejected the basis upon which they had prospered and driven millions of beings into the abyss. Everybody applied themselves to recreating the same pre-1914 situation, but better, more modern and more democratic, whereas the whole of capitalist civilization had proved its failure, confirming the apocalyptic forecasts of the revolutionaries and the warnings of the more lucid bourgeois.

« We are the last [of the republican mystique]. Nearly the après-derniers. Immediately after us begins another age, another world, the world of those who no longer believe in anything, or who have any pride and glory in it. »
( Péguy, Our youth )

And, to still further increase the confusion, under a radical mask Russia, the Communist International and the Communist Parties were also supporting the reconstitution of a labour movement and a renovated democracy, which didn't take long before resembling their predecessors.

As distinct from those who vainly relied on activism, the communist left understood the depth of the counter-revolution and drew out its consequences. It affirmed itself as resistance to capital and, because of this, it proved incapable of leaving its entrenchment's in order to imagine the future outlines of a revolution different from those which had ocurred after 1917, beginning with the new situation but above all with the invariance of the nature of the communist movement.

The ultra-left was born and grew in opposition to Social-Democracy and Leninism -- which had become Stalinism. Against them it affirmed the revolutionary spontaneity of the proletariat. The German communist left ( in fact German-Dutch ), and its derivatives, maintained that the only « human » solution lay in proletarians' own activity, without it being necessary to educate or to organize them; that when they acted by and for themselves the seeds of radically different social relations were present in workers actions; that the experience of taking their struggles into their own hands prepared them to take the whole of society into their hands when the revolution became possible; that proletarians today must refuse to allow themselves to be dispossessed of even the most negligible actions by the trade union and party bureaucracies, in order tomorrow to prevent any so-called workers' state from managing production in their place and instituting state capitalism, as the Russian revolution had done. Finally it affirmed that trade unions and parties had become elements of capitalism.

Before being reduced to the status of tiny groups, the German Left had been the most advanced ( and numerous ) component of the movement from 1917 to 1921. Later, whatever its weaknesses, it remained the only current to defend the exploited in all circumstances and without concessions. In the same way, it refused to support any war, whether anti-fascist ( unlike the Trotskyists and a great number of anarchists ) or national ( unlike the bordigists ), with the exception of the Spanish War, during which, following in the footsteps of anarchism, it had gone so far as to support the CNT.

Affirming within its theory the autonomy of the proletariat against state intervention, it denounced everything that deprived the working class of its capacity for initiative : parliamentarianism, syndicalism, anti-fascist or national fronts, such as the French Resistence to German occupation, and any apparatus tending to constitute itself into a party above the working class.

« The emancipation of proletarians will be the work of proletarians themselves », says the Manifesto. But what sort of emancipation ? For the German Left communism was confused with workers' management. It did not see that autonomy must be exercised in all fields and not merely in production, that it is only by eradicating market exchange from all social relations, from everything which nourishes life, that proletarians will retain mastery of their revolution. To reorganise production once more, is to give birth to a new administrative apparatus. Anyone who puts management forward condemns themselves to creating a managerial apparatus.

The management of our lives by bureaucrats is only one facet of our dispossession of ourselves. This alienation, the fact that our life is decided by others than ourselves, is not merely an administrative reality which another form of management could change. The monopolization of decisions by a privileged layer of decision makers is an effect of the social relations of the market and wage labour. In pre-capitalist societies, the self-employed craftsman also saw that his activity escaped him as it entered into the price mechanism. Little by little the logic of commerce tore away any choice from his actions. However there was no « bureaucrat » to dictate his conduct. Money and wage-labour already contain within themselves the possibility and the necessity of dispossession. There is only a difference in degree between the dispossession of the craftsman and that of the unskilled worker in BMW. Admittedly the difference is not slight, but in both cases their « ... work depends on causes set apart from them... » ( Dézamy, Code de la communauté, 1842 ). As for managers, they embody this alienation. It is thus no more a matter of replacing them with workers' councils, than it is of replacing the bourgeoisie with bureaucrats from the trade unions and parties -- the result would resemble the Russian experience after 1917.

Caught in pincers between the SPD and the CIO -- the two forms of the counter-revolution born out of workers' struggles -- the German Left had to oppose itself to both of them. But it had difficulty in seeing that the IWW would have disappeared or become a reformist organisation. As an autonomous workers' organisation, the IWW retrospectively displayed all the virtues. But it is not enough for a structure to be workerist and anti-bureaucratic for it to be revolutionary. That depends on what it does. If it takes part in trade union activities it becomes what the trade unions are. Thus the German Left was also mistaken about the nature of the CNT. Nevertheless, overall it showed that it's too superficial to only take account of the trade unions, and that it is the reformist activity of workers themselves which maintains organised, openly counter-revolutionary, reformism.

The German Left understood that the bourgeois world before 1914 had given way to the capitalist world. It could recognise capital everywhere it existed, including the USSR, whereas it was not until 1945 that Bordiga put things so clearly. Council communism ended up by confining itself in councilism, but, immediately after the 1939-45 war, it saw the necessity of leaving behind the theoretical framework defined between the wars. In 1946 Pannekoek understood that the proletariat had undergone « a failure linked with aims which were too limited » and that « the real struggle for emancipation hasn't started yet ». The purest expression of the revolutionary proletariat after 1917, the German Left also reproduced its limitations, which on its own it could not pass beyond.

Inheriting the mantle of the ultra-left after the war, the magazine 'Socialisme ou Barbarie' appeared in France between 1949 and 1965. Organisationally, the group which constituted itself around the journal was not descended from the German Left but from Trotskyism, before soon being joined by defectors from the Italian Left. Even if it never claimed this filial relation itself, SouB none the less belonged to councilism, which it had come to as a result of a reflection on bureaucracy, arising from a rejection of the Trotskyist positions on the USSR.

One of SouB's merits was that it looked for « the answer » in the proletariat. Without populism or any pretence of having rediscovered some kind of « workers' values », it understood that workers' speech was indeed a condition of the communist movement. Thus it supported forms of expression such as Tribune Ouvrière, published by Renault workers. In this way it placed itself within the wider movement which would culminate in May 68 and give birth to preliminary sketches of autonomous organisation such as Inter-Enterprises. That a minority of workers' come together and take up speech is truly a condition of communism.

Unions and workers' parties offer their services to wage workers in exchange for recognition and support, including financial support. Extreme-left groups pretend to offer the waged a better defence of their interests than the union and party bureaucrats who they consider to be too moderate. In exchange they demand even less : approval, however half-hearted, for their programme. Interventionists or libertarians, all see the same solution to the continuity between proletariat and communism -- they conceive the content of communism as being outside the proletariat. Not seeing the intrinsic relation between proletariat and revolution -- except that it is the former which makes the latter -- they are obliged to introduce a programme.

SouB showed that workers' actions contained more than a struggle against exploitation and that it carried within it the germ of new relations. But it only saw this in self-organisation, not in proletarian practise -- the monstrous avatar of human life produced by capital which, in erupting, could engender another world.

Providing that one doesn't become entangled in questions of organising and managing work, the observation of factory life makes it possible to illuminate the communist direction of proletarian struggle. Thus, the testimony of the American worker Ria Stone published in the early editions of the magazine went further than the theorising on the content of socialism done later on by Chaulieu ( but publication of Stone's text wouldn't have been possible without Chaulieu's 'error' ).

SouB broke with workerism. Lefort's « The Proletarian Experience » is undoubtedly the most profound text published by SouB. But he indicates the groups limits and in so doing announced its impasse. In effect he continued to search for a mediation between the misery of the workers condition and their open revolt against capital. However, it is within itself that the proletariat finds the elements of its revolt and the content of the revolution, not in any organisation posed as a precondition and which would either bring it consciousness or offer it a base for regroupment. Lefort saw the revolutionary mechanism in proletarians themselves, but in their organisation rather than in their contradictory nature. So, he too ended up by reducing the content of socialism to workers' management.

Moreover, instead of the testimony of workers' which Lefort wanted, SouB threw itself into workers' sociology, ending up by making everything turn on the distinction between direction and execution. In this it differentiated itself from Information et Correspondence Ouvrieres ( ICO ) - which Lefort rejoined - a workerist and councilist bulletin and group, a more immediate expression of workers' autonomy, and from the Groupe de Liaison pour l'Action des Travailleurs ( GLAT ) equally workerist, but concerned with publishing minutely detailed analyses of capitalism's evolution. Each in its own way, ICO and GLAT would be present at the university centre at Censier, occupied by revolutionaries in May 68.

The Hungarian Revolution gave a new vigour to SouB, while reinforcing its councilism. In effect, they saw in it the confirmation of their theses at a time when the « council » form was coming to prove that it was capable of acting in a manner totally contrary to councilism, for example in giving support to a stalinist liberal. Before long, SouB abandoned its old Marxist reference points and threw itself into an intellectual wandering which was to end in 1965. This evolution brought about the departure of the « Marxists » who founded Pouvoir Ouvrier ( PO ) in 1963. And it was one of PO's member's, Pierre Guillaume, who went on to found the bookshop la Vieille Taupe two years later, which later on we will see the role of.

Like the Situationist International, but in a different way, SouB « clung » to the modernisation of Western society. Its theses on bureaucratic capitalism and on bureaucratic society, born simultaneously from the spectre of a seizure of power by the Stalinists and from the overturning of French society which had been orchestrated by the State, expressed the crisis which gnawed into the dominant industrial model, particularly in France. By propagating slogans like « Workers' Power, Peasants' Power, Students' Power » ( PSU tract in June 1968 ), by making « autonomous and democratic management » into the number one objective, the May 68 movement popularised themes of SouB's, while at the same time demonstrating the limits both of the group and of the entire movement.

In 1969 the journal « Invariance » concluded that : « 'Socialisme ou Barbarie' wasn't an accident. It clearly expressed a position diffused on a world scale : the interpretation of the absence of the proletariat and the rise of the new middle classes...Socialisme ou Barberie fulfilled its role of surpassing the sects because it opened into the immediate, into the present, severing any attachment to the past... » ( Series I, no. 6. p29 )

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