Militant Chez Renault. Daniel Mothé. Editions du Seuil

The chief merit of Daniel Mothé’s report from the Renault car factory at Billancourt is to point out that for the production workers involved the union is no longer—if it ever was—a pure instrument of their will but that it is one more of the large organizations which attempts to use them for its ends while they more weakly attempt to use it for their’s. The alienation of the product is a completed process for the youngest generation of workers with no memory of a past of glorious struggle to construct the union: for them it is a social fact in the Durkheimian sense. For the militant, it is an ongoing process which he serves while he fights against it. It is from the vantage point of a militant chez Renault that Mothé describes life at the grass roots, where in order to get concessions from the management the unions have to involve themselves in a hamstringing web of complicit obligations to them, where both unions and management police their agreements by attacking the wreckers, adventurists, saboteurs and irresponsible elements who call them—and therefore the nation and even the norms of civilized life—into question.

His account is not in any way a polemical plea for the ‘revolutionary minorities’ whose plight he describes sympathetically but clearly. Their refusal to ‘enter’ puts them in the role of the moralizing ego-ideal of the working-class, the response to whose demands is commonly, ‘Yes, that’s what we ought to be doing, but we can’t so let’s do something else. His account of the inflation of inappropriate heroic and revolutionary language to cover unheroic and reformist activities is equally penetrating.

The book closes with a plea for militants in particular and socialists in general not to concentrate on ‘economist’ demands for higher wages—which in countries like Britain will find increasing resistance based on the national-interest argument of not pricing oneself out of the world market—and to focus on what has previously been the unexamined, shame-faced, but real driving force of militant activity: the qualitative alteration of work relations, an extension of workers’ autonomy and control which can only be opposed by management on frankly reactionary grounds.

Militant chez Renault is lucid and rewarding, and (for those whose French is weak) written in easy French.