The party-form is one of the defining themes of May ‘68. After all, this was a situation where a revolutionary movement was pushing for revolutionary change, where an entire country was paralyzed by the largest general strike in its history, and where the sitting government was clearly ill-equipped to handle the situation. We do not know what would have happened if the revolutionaries actually pushed to violently seize state power, à la the Bolsheviks. Maybe the movement would have been crushed, but engaging in historical ‘what ifs’ is a useless exercise – we cannot change the past. The reality is that a revolutionary situation was partially sabotaged by a communist party and union. Why was the PCF unable to serve a revolutionary purpose in May ‘68?
One explanation is that the PCF was never really a revolutionary communist party. The communist party is supposed to serve two very important functions: developing revolutionary theory, and organizing working class struggles into a larger movement. On the first point, we can reference Lenin’s insistence that “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”1 Without a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, communists will not be able to effectively intervene in the class struggle, and May ‘68 alone is proof of this as the PCF never grasped the conjuncture. On the flip side, developing revolutionary theory alone is not enough for a communist party to earn its role as the vanguard. If communists merely developed revolutionary theory, but were incapable of actually organizing others and implementing their theories, then these communists would be useless. The communist party needs to be able to both develop revolutionary theory and cultivate a vast network of organizers and workers who can lead a movement. The communist party needs to connect revolutionary theoretical practice with revolutionary political practice. While the PCF and CGT did not lack influence (there were millions of people in each) they were unable to develop revolutionary theory and analysis. To understand why, we need to understand the PCF’s history and dependency on the Comintern.
The PCF was formed following a split in the old French Socialist Party after the first World War. J. M. Vincent, in his short history of the PCF, writes that the left wing of the fledgling party lacked skilled theoreticians. As a result, they resorted to arguments made in the Comintern to back up their positions. Vincent says, “the party thus became more completely dependent on the Soviet leadership of the Communist International than either the German or Italian parties, and this as early as 1924.”2 The PCF followed the trajectory of the USSR: a popular front in the 1930s to combat fascism, and then a return to Marxist humanism following the secret speech of Kruschev.3 “Lacking the originality and political traditions of the leading tendencies of the German CP (from Brandler to Ruth Fischer) or of the Italian CP (from Bordiga to Gramsci), and with memories of anarcho-syndicalism as its only theoretical equipment, the French party offered only very limited resistance to the conceptions of Zinoviev, and later of Stalin—conceptions heavily influenced by events in Russia.”4 Rather than conducting a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, the PCF viewed events in France through the prism of the USSR.
In the introduction of For Marx, Althusser asserts that the French Marxists were theoretically underdeveloped, and that there was a general anti-intellectual culture within the PCF.5 For him, one reason the great Marxist intellectuals appeared in Germany (Marx), Italy (Gramsci), Poland (Luxemburg), and Russia (Lenin) was because of the government’s repression of revolutionary intellectuals in those countries. This repression forced many intellectuals to work underground; Marx was forced into exile three times, and Lenin spent large chunks of his life as an émigré. As a result, they “could only seek their freedom and future at the side of the working class, the only revolutionary class.”6 However, France was different, since the French bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class in the 18th and early 19th century. Althusser says,
“It [the bourgeoisie] had defeated the Church… It had been able to use both its position of strength and its past standing to offer the intellectuals a sufficient space and future, sufficiently honourable functions and a sufficient margin of freedom and illusion to keep them within its authority and under the control of its ideology.”7
Intellectuals in France had been assimilated into the institutions of the bourgeoisie, and that is a reason why there was a lack of Marxist theoreticians in France. Althusser also asserts that French philosophy on the whole had been seriously lacking since the French Revolution. The PCF “was born into this theoretical vacuum.”8
So, the PCF lacked revolutionary theoreticians, and thus tethered itself to the Comintern. It thus became a negative force at the same time as the Comintern, due to the hegemony of “Stalinism.” Stalinism typically refers to “authoritarianism” in popular discourse9, but there is another conception of “Stalinism” which comes from Althusser and is elaborated by Christine Buci-Glucksmann.10 For them, the major consequences of “Stalinism” were the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering away of the state in the practices of socialist construction. Socialism was said to have already been achieved within the USSR by 193711; Althusser and Buci-Glucksmann criticize Stalin for conceiving of socialism as a mode of production minus contradiction (even though contradiction is the driving force of socialism).12 Buci-Glucksmann argues that Stalin puts forward two new arguments on the state in his Historical and Dialectical Materialism:
“1) The dictatorship of the proletariat is not, in the first instance, a power of a new type (soviets, autonomous mass organization). It becomes a state which reproduces the classic – and at base anti-democratic – separation found in all states: between leaders and led. 2) Socialism is no longer a long term, transitional historical phase before classless society (communism). It is already a society without class struggle, a “harmonious society”: a mode of production.”13
The removal of class struggle and contradiction from Marxism is by definition revisionist, since these concepts are the motor force of Marxism as a science.14 Further, if class conflict is already eliminated in socialism, then communism loses all of its meaning. Buci-Glucksmann says, “in my view, this form of theory supports and obscures a particular economistic vision of socialism: mode of production without class struggle, state of the whole people, a productivist ideology, the revival of a certain state-centered nationalism, the reduction of social problems to mainly technical problems, the removal of contradictions and pluralism from civil society.”15 Stalinism obscures the contradictions between the masses and the state, and between politics and the economy. It excludes the masses from politics, and politics can only occur in the confines of the state and the party leadership. This is compatible with some Maoist critiques of the USSR, which asserts that the Communist Party became revisionist and thus alienated from the people.16 An important component of communism is the abolition of the division of intellectual and manual labor, where those who do the work would make decisions about the work they’re doing, where every individual is capable of critical thinking, problem solving, and engaging in social practices. Stalinism maintains the division of labor, and thus re-converts workers into cogs of a machine. This is why people eventually grew unfulfilled and alienated in the USSR, and they unfortunately attributed this to socialism rather than to residue left over from the capitalist mode of production.
The argument from Althusser and Buci-Glucksmann is that Stalinism is a distortion of the party-form. The party-form is not necessarily positive or negative. In some cases, it can play a revolutionary role in a movement, as it did in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Revolution. It can also play a neutralizing role, as it did in May ‘68. Singer summarizes the PCF’s conception of the party as that in which “truth is revealed from above, the leadership can do no wrong, and nothing creative can come from below.”17 This is why the party was unable to play a revolutionary role in the crisis – the leadership refused to acknowledge that the UNEF was a genuine force, and that they could learn from them. The PCF had gradually transformed into a social-democratic party, and their primary goal was to try to govern the capitalist state. This is revisionism, since the PCF rejected the core thesis of Marxism: the primacy of the class struggle. By choosing class collaboration, they abandoned the revolutionary core of Marxism.
May ‘68 demonstrates the limits of social democracy. The PCF and CGT were large organizations comprising millions of members. They were able to lessen the degree of exploitation for workers in France. After May ‘68, the Socialist Party, the party that emerged out of the SFIO, ruled France for about a decade in the 80s. France achieved everything a democratic socialist would want to achieve and more. It was only after that France was consumed by the neoliberal trend that had already consumed the rest of the West in the 80s.
As Althusser argues, social democracy is necessarily defensive.18 Social democratic politics, like nationalizing healthcare and education, setting a higher minimum wage, and achieving better working conditions, can only ever lessen the degree of exploitation. But this does nothing to challenge the fundamental structure of capitalist production. Furthermore, Althusser argues that the capitalist class only grants welfare in times of crisis to appease the working class.19 Is May ‘68 not evidence of this? The French State granted reforms to the CGT to try and end the general strike, since they feared a larger revolution consuming them. When the threat of revolution goes away, so do the reforms, as the bourgeoisie attacks the institutions of the labor movement (Reaganism/Thatcherism). Of course, this is all very schematic, but my larger point is that democratic socialism was only able to temporarily improve the lives of workers, and it was only possible because of increased profits produced by imperialism.20 We cannot forget the fundamental law of Marxism: that history is driven by the class struggle, which can never be fully contained – antagonistic classes can never peacefully coexist. Democratic socialism negates the law of class struggle, by pushing for a social formation where both classes can happily exist – the bourgeoisie can have their money, as long as they treat the working class “fairly.”
While many considered the PCF a “distortion” of the revolutionary party-form, a different, more radical view emerged in light of May ‘68 via Badiou.21 He argues that the party-form is intertwined with old modes of politics that are no longer fit for contemporary struggles. The old conception of politics was based on the idea that there is a historical political agent which offers the hope for emancipation (the working class in Marxism):
“One of that conviction’s implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were sites of power or intervention.”22
Even if there were different conceptualizations of the party, there was a basic agreement that the party-form is central to politics. Or in other words, if there was an agent for emancipatory politics, then that agent had to be organized in the form of a party. In Marxism-Leninism, the agent is the proletariat which has to be organized into the communist party. In democratic politics, the agent is the “people” which has to be organized into a democratic, electoral party. Within this framework, there are two sides to politics: social movements with particular demands (the union), and the party which provides the organizational form for the movement to realize these demands. According to Badiou, May ‘68 was the beginning of the death for this conception of politics, the politics of the party-form, as this period challenged the legitimacy of all of the dominant institutions, parties, and unions: “what we failed to see at the time was that it was the language itself that had to be transformed, but this time in an affirmative sense.”23 Badiou says that before ‘68, politics was defined by the idea that everyone stays in their role: the workers organize in the union, students in the student union, and so on, and each group is only linked through a larger body. In May, this framework began to fall apart:
“Thousands of students, high school students, workers, women from the estates and proletarians from Africa went in search of a new politics. What would a political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other? At that point, we realized, without really understanding it, that if a new emancipatory politics was possible, it would turn social classifications upside down. It would not consist in organizing everyone in the places where they were, but in organizing lightning displacements, both material and mental.”24
Badiou’s analysis underscores the abandonment of the party-form as a legitimate mode of organizing following May ‘68. French communists were disillusioned by the actions of the PCF, and thus went searching for new modes of political practice.
For me, the problem with the party is the problem of institutionalization. The party becomes a fixed institution where the purpose of the party, advancing the class struggle towards communism, is lost amidst the maintenance and survival of the party. This has happened both in countries where state power was seized, like the USSR and China, and in countries that never seized state power like France. Since the party becomes an institution, the leaders of the institution over time will seek to preserve it, even if that means sacrificing the institution’s original purpose.25 The USSR, plagued by Civil War, imperialist encirclement, and threatened with the development of fascism throughout Europe, chose the road of national peace at all costs. In France, the PCF abandoned their commitment to revolution over time, if they ever had one, in favor of trying to become a ‘legitimate’ party under the bourgeois state. Even Mao, who was acutely aware of this problem, abandoned the Cultural Revolution in favor of stability.
So to summarize, the Party and Unions clearly neutralized the movement of May ‘68. The communists in France had the strength to win, the contradictions of capitalism had been intensifying, but their leaders crumbled. How can you prevent bad leaders in the abstract? How can institutionalization be prevented?
These questions can only be answered if one believes there is a way to preemptively guarantee success, or preemptively prevent failure. While Marxism has been charged with the critique of economic determinism – the view that that revolution will inevitably happen due to the contradictions of capitalism – I do not think this is the case. As I argue elsewhere, the conceptions of Marxism that have been most successfully utilized in revolutionary practice reject any notion of guaranteed success.26 The concept of the vanguard party, along with Lenin’s insistence on the importance of revolutionary theory and Mao’s theorizations of contradiction and struggle, are in complete opposition to any notion of revolution as teleologically determined by the “laws of history”. This is compatible with Stuart Hall’s thesis of a “politics without guarantees.” For Hall this thesis was advanced in the context of media and cultural practices, but it is also relevant here. “The search for a guarantee was the search for a fixed and stable foundation, which could then serve as a standpoint of moral purity. But just as it’s impossible for power to fix bad images, like racial stereotypes, Hall argued that it’s impossible for us to fix good ones.”27 Likewise, there is a tendency in Marxist theory to search for an “ideal” organizational or political form that will serve as a foundation for revolutionary politics. Traditionally, this has been the party-form, which, if built, will advance communists towards revolution. The degeneration of communist parties throughout the second half of the 20th century had caused some to invert this thesis. Now the party, rather than guaranteeing success, dooms us to failure. Returning to Hall, no concept, signifier, or category has a fixed, immutable, or predetermined essence. The party-form is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” or necessarily neutralizing, or necessarily a guarantee that we will be successful.
While I do not believe that the construction of a revolutionary communist party will guarantee success, I still believe in the necessity of the party in advancing class struggle. The difference between the party and other forms of organization is its generality. A union is confined to a specific workplace, and only represents the interests of the workers within the workplace. Another example is a tenants union, which represents the interests of the tenants within a specific building(s) or under a specific landlord. The problem with unions and other particular forms of organizing, like mutual aid, is that they are confined to a specific site, goal, or need. What is the endpoint of a union? To negotiate the best possible conditions for the workers. But, it is still confined to the structure of capitalist social relations, and can never fully break beyond them. Even if the goal for a union is to eventually oust the owners so the workers can run the workplace themselves, said workers would still be operating within the larger capitalist system. Forms of organization that revolve around a specific site, objective, campaign, etc., have limits, and another form of organization is necessary to link together various struggles and to develop longer term strategies. This is, generally, the purpose of the party. The party has other necessary functions, such as political education and theoretical formation, recruiting communists, cadre development and building a general communist network. If there are three fronts of the class struggle, the economic, political, and ideological, then the party is the mechanism through which communists can effectively intervene in all three fronts.28
If a problem of the party is institutionalization, then attempts to prevent this must center around the conceptualization of the party as a finite instrument that intervenes to articulate social struggles into a broader unity.29 The party must be conceptualized, as McWhinney and McGlone argue in their essays, in terms of its effects and functions, rather than on wills and intentions. The PCF, or any party, claiming to be Marxist or communist means nothing – what matters is their actions in class struggles like May ‘68.30 The problem is: what should communists do when a party, which claims to be revolutionary, fails to act like one? Althusser remained a member of the PCF after May ‘68 because he believed the party could be struggled against from within, and he advocated for the party to embrace the mass line to correct the errors that led to the party’s failure to fuse with the students in May ‘68. The other option is to construct new forms of organization, which Badiou and Lazarus did by founding the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste (UCFml)31, and later the L’Organisation Politique. This problem persists today in the absence of mass communist organizations in the US. Should contemporary communists join organizations like DSA and struggle within them, or build new, independent organizations? I don’t have an answer to this question, and I believe it can only be resolved at the level of politics. While I still defend the necessity of the party, or a similar type of organization, it is not a messianic force, nor a magic bullet that will lead communists to victory.
1. Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/download/what-itd.pdf, 12. ←
2. J.M. Vincent, “The PCF and its History,” New Left Review 1, no 52 (1968), 40. ←
3. “Marxists sought to go beyond this rigid, mechanical view of history, and they found resources in Marx’s youthful writings. Chief among them were the ‘1844 Manuscripts,’ which had been published in 1932 and had gone largely unnoticed until now, when they were avidly taken up both by the Communist Parties and the heterodox left-wing tendencies that criticized them. In the PCF, this was represented in a dramatic extreme by the Party’s official philosopher Roger Garaudy. As William S. Lewis writes in Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism, Garaudy’s project after 1956 was to show “how Marxism is not only a humanism but a theory of human liberation compatible with Judeo-Christian notions of emancipation,” and thus also a practical basis for uniting with Catholics and social democrats.” – Asad Haider, “A New Practice of Politics: Althusser and Marxist Philosophy,” Verso Blog, March 18, 2018. ←
4. Vincent, “The PCF and its History,” 40. ←
5. Louis Althusser, For Marx, (London: Verso, 2006), 23. ←
6. Althusser, For Marx, 25. ←
7. Althusser, 25. ←
8. Ibid, 26. ←
9. I generally find the conception of Stalinism as authoritarianism unconvincing, but there is not enough space to elaborate on that here. ←
10. Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “On the Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism,” Viewpoint Magazine, 2017. ←
11. Constitution of the USSR in 1936, https://constitutii.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/1936-en.pdf. ←
12. Buci-Glucksmann, “Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism.” ←
13. Ibid. ←
14. I expand on this argument in, “What is Marxism?,” Negation Magazine, 2021. ←
15. Buci-Glucksmann. ←
16. Jean Daubier, A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York: Random House, 1974), 18-19. ←
17. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), 289. ←
18. Louis Althusser, “Preface to Capital,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 85-87. ←
19. Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Bloomsbury, 2017), 118-119. ←
20. Vladimir Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, and Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, 119. ←
21. Badiou’s ideas are also influenced by Sylvain Lazarus, but due to the complexity of his concepts, and the limited space of this essay, I am unable to engage with him here. ←
22. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010), 31. ←
23. Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, 33. ←
24. Badiou, 34. ←
25. Daubier, A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 10-11, details how institutionalization leads to the complacency of leadership. ←
26. What is Marxism?, Negation Magazine. ←
27. Asad Haider, “Politics Without Guarantees,” The Point Magazine, 2021. ←
28. Lenin, What is to be Done?, 13. ←
31. Badiou, 33. ←