Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

We Are a Million in the Streets. Why Should We Go Home?

I was looking up some material on May ’68 this evening – Marxists Internet Archive has a wonderful eyewitness account, particularly sensitive to the details of how various formal working class “representatives” behaved during the uprisings. It’s a story, among other things, of attempted control of the events by various organisers – and of the moment of spontaneity that overflowed such attempts.

image from the May 68 uprising

Lots of anecdotes of this sort:

Although the demonstration has been announced, as a joint one, the CGT leaders are still striving desperately to avoid a mixing up, on the streets, of students and workers. In this they are moderately successful. By about 4-30 p.m. the student and teachers’ contingent, perhaps 80,000 strong, finally leaves the Place de la République. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have preceded it, hundreds of thousands follow it, but the “left” contingent has been well and truly “bottled-in.” Several groups, understanding at last the CGT’s manoeuvre, break loose once we are out of the square. They take short cuts via various side streets, at the double, and succeed in infiltrating groups of 100 or so into parts of the march ahead of them, or behind them. The Stalinast stewards walking hand in hand” and hemming the march in on either side are powerless to prevent these sudden influxes. The student demonstrators scatter like fish in water as soon as they have entered a given contingent. The CGT marchers themselves are quite friendly and readily assimilate the newcomers, not quite sure what it’s all about.


The part of the march in which I find myself is now rapidly approaching what the organizers have decided should be the dispersal point. The CGT is desperately keen that its hundreds of thousands of supporters should disperse quietly. It fears them, when they are together. It wants them nameless atoms again, scattered to the four corners of Paris, powerless in the context of their individual preoccupations. The CGT sees itself as the only possible link between them as the divinely ordained vehicle for the expression of their collective will. The “Mouvement du 22 Mars,” on the other hand, had issued a call to the students and workers, asking them to stick together and to proceed to the lawns of the Champ de Mars (at the foot of the Eiffel Tower) for a massive collective discussion on the experiences of the day and on the problems that lie ahead.

At this stage I sample for the first time what a “service d’ordre” composed of Stalinist stewards really means, All day, the stewards have obviously been anticipating this particular moment. They are very tense, clearly expecting “trouble.” Above all else they fear what they call “debordement,” i.e. being outflanked on the left. For the last half-mile of the march five or six solid rows of them line up on either side of the demonstrators. Arms linked, they form a massive sheath around the marchers. CGT officials address the bottled-up demonstrators through two powerful loudspeakers mounted on vans, instructing them to disperse quietly via the Boulevard Arago, i.e. to proceed in precisely the opposite direction to the one heading to the Champ de Mars. Other exits from the Place Denfert Rochereau are blocked by lines of stewards linking arms.

On occasions like this, I am told the Communist Party calls up thousands of its members from the Paris area. It al so summons members from miles around, bringing them up by the coachload from places as far away as Rennes, Orleans, Sens, Lille and Limoges. The municipalities under Communist Party control provide further hundreds of these “stewards” not necessarily Party members, but people dependent on the goodwill of the Party for their jobs and future. Ever since its heyday of participation in the government (1945-47) the Party has had this kind of mass base in the Paris suburbs. It has invariably used it in circumstances like today. On this demonstration there must be at least 10,000 such stewards possibly twice that number.

The exhortations of the stewards meet with a variable response. Whether they are successful in getting particular groups to disperse via the Boulevard Arago depends of course on the composition of the groups. Most of those which the students have not succeeded in infiltrating obey, although even here some of the younger militants protest: “We are a million in the streets. Why should we go home?” Other groups hesitate, vacillate, start arguing. Student speakers climb on walls and shout:

“All those who want to return to the telly, turn down the Boulevard Arago Those who are for joint worker-student discussions and for developing the struggle turn down the Boulevard Raspail and proceed to the Champ de Mars.”

Those protesting against the dispersion orders are immediately jumped on by the stewards, denounced as “provocateurs” and often manhandled. I saw several comrades of the “Mouvement du 22 Mars” physically assaulted, their portable loudhailers snatched from their hands and their leaflets torn from them and thrown to the ground. In some sections there seemed to be dozens, in other hundreds, in other thousands of “provocateurs.” A number of minor punch-ups take place as the stewards are swept aside by these particular contingents. Heated arguments break out, the demonstrators denouncing the Stalinists as “cops” and as “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.”

A respect for facts compels me to admit that most contingents followed the orders of the trade union bureaucrats. The repeated slanders by the CGT and Communist Party leaders had had their effect. The students were “trouble-makers,” “adventurers,” “dubious elements.” Their proposed action would “only lead to a massive intervention by the CRS” (who had kept well out of sight throughout the whole of the afternoon). “This was just a demonstration, not a prelude to Revolution.” Playing ruthlessly on the most backward sections of the crowd, and physically assaulting the more advanced sections, the apparatchniks of the CGT succeeded in getting the bulk of the demonstrators to disperse, often under protest. Thousands went to the Champ de Mars. But hundreds of thousands went home. The Stalinists won the day, but the arguments started will surely reverberate down the months to come.

And from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, prescient:

“Explain to us”, Cohn-Bendit said, “why the Communist Party and the CGT told their militants to disperse at Denfert Rochereau, why it prevented them joining up with us for a discussion at the Champ de Mars?”

“Simple, really”, sneered Catala. “The agreement concluded between the CGT, the CFDT, the UNEF and the other sponsoring organisations stipulated that dispersal would take place at a pre determined place. The Joint Sponsoring Committee had not sanctioned any further developments.”

“A revealing answer”, replied Cohn-Bendit, “the organizations hadn’t foreseen that we would be a million in the streets. But life is bigger than the organizations. With a million people almost any thing is possible. You say the Committee hadn’t sanctioned anything further. On the day of the Revolution, comrade, you will doubtless tell us to forego it “because it hasn’t been sanctioned by the appropriate sponsoring Committee.”

Note: other May 68 materials in English here and in French here.

5 responses to “We Are a Million in the Streets. Why Should We Go Home?

  1. mark January 29, 2008 at 10:39 am

    thanks for the link supplying this material about may 1968. I confess to not knowing much about it directly, but feel my thinking has been influenced by the event.

  2. N Pepperell January 30, 2008 at 3:31 am

    Hey mark – Sorry you were held in moderation – it should happen only on a first post. My sense has been that an enormous amount of contemporary theory flows through this event – at the very least, you can feel in many forms of theory the desire to fend off the sort of mechanistic types of Marxism that were used as justifications for helping to shut this movement down.

  3. Nate February 12, 2008 at 9:21 am

    hi NP,
    You may know all this, but just in case – I’m pretty sure that account is a digitized copy of a pamphlet put out by the UK group Solidarity, who were a sort of Castoriadis-ist group when he was writing under the name Paul Cardan. Their main thinker was Maurice Brinton who has recently had a book of his writing published. A fair bit of their stuff is online and is quite good in my opinion. Re: Cohn-Bendit, I happened to read his Obsolete Communism book at the same time as Michael Perelman’s book on primitive accumulation — Cohn-Bendit quotes Trotsky at one point talking about Russian peasants and it’s eerily similar to one of the political economists Perelman quotes about peasants much earlier in the UK.
    take care,

  4. N Pepperell February 12, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Yes, sorry – I should have given a better citation here – this is from the Solidarity account. I did my MA, by the way, on the Socialisme ou Barbarie group 🙂

  5. Nate February 13, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I had forgotten about that! I’d love to read it, if you don’t mind.

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