Votes, as Marx and Engels used to say, give the right to govern, they do not give the power to do so. Conversely, to win votes, or to win by votes, the opposition must already have shown that it is capable of taking and exercising power in a substantially different manner from that which has prevailed hitherto.

This truth was resoundingly confirmed during the abortive May-June revolution. How could a Left, which had been unable to assert its power to govern when power was in its grasp, expect that votes would give it what it had been unable to take when nine million workers were on strike against the power of capitalism. From the moment that those political parties which historically claimed to represent the working class showed themselves incapable of offering an outlet to the popular uprising and an alternative to the régime, it was only logical that they would be crushed by reaction and abandoned by a million of their voters.

It is now not so much a matter of seeking the reasons of this failure, or of denouncing those responsible, as of shedding light on certain fundamental aspects of the May-June crisis and of drawing the lessons for the future.

Because this revolutionary crisis was started by unorganized movements and reached its climax through the initiatives of the student and working-class base, there is now a strong temptation to pose the problem of how to overthrow the bourgeois State in anarcho-syndicalist terms: relying on mass spontaneity, seeing insurrection as the royal road to revolution, and repudiating not only the old bureaucratic apparatuses but also the preparatory work and political leadership of which the latter showed themselves incapable.

Attractive as it may seem in certain respects, a return to anarcho-syndicalism would, in fact, be an intellectual and political regression; worse still, it would be to misunderstand the nature of bourgeois power and the revolutionary process that is capable of bringing about its downfall and carrying the working class to power. The question of taking power was posed in May, and must continue to be posed; so too must the question of the instrument necessary for taking power, the new type of revolutionary party. But such questions cannot be posed and replied to simply in terms of a gamble on the short-term repetition of a spontaneous, insurrectionary general strike. That would be to return to revolutionary attentisme; to the theory of all or nothing according to which the revolution must be a quasi-instantaneous act or become bogged down in petty reformism, and until the great day there is nothing much to be done apart from agitation and propaganda.

It is this point that, once again, needs to be made today.

The May general strike was directed as much against the political and trade-union apparatuses of the working class as it was against the régime. The strike was neither foreseen, prepared, understood nor channelled by these apparatuses. It revealed the disjuncture between the working class and its leaders; the latter were not aware of the depth of working-class discontent, nor did they know its reasons; a fortiori, they were incapable of translating these reasons into demands which would at once raise the level of consciousness of the proletariat, take account of the workers’ refusal of their condition at the workplace and in society, and orientate their combativity towards objectives which, once attained, would transform the condition of the working class and lastingly dislocate bourgeois power.