The May Revolution in France was foreseen by nobody. It burst upon the world without warning. It did not fit any pre-conceived pattern. At first glance France seemed the capitalist country least likely to be shaken by social upheaval. Unlike Britain it was not in the throes of a chronic economic crisis. Unlike the United States it was not disturbed by a long, vicious and fruitless war. Unlike Italy it was not faced with the breakdown of a fragile parliamentary coalition. Unlike West Germany or Japan it did not even have a record of intense student militancy. Yet it was in France that the storm broke.
Paris was not Petrograd; May did not reach October. The Revolution was not finally achieved. Indeed, the State apparatus not only was not broken but, in some ways, emerged strengthened from its ordeal. Yet we should see the May Revolution primarily as a victory and not as a defeat. For years the Left in Europe has been writing ‘Letters From Afar’, attempting analysis, expressing solidarity, discussing strategy. Now the struggle has suddenly arrived at home. The struggle of Vietnam, of Cuba, of Portuguese Guinea, can be seen to be our own struggle, not just symbolically, but effectively, with a real possibility of success. The direct impact of one on the other has recently been analysed in these pages by Göran Therbornfootnote1 Revolutionaries in France learned the lesson the Vietnamese have taught—imperialism is vulnerable everywhere. In an advanced capitalist country, revolution was placed on the agenda. The revolutionary upsurge which swept France was unprecedented in scale. It penetrated every sector of national life, every region of the country. More than ten millions stopped work: not only students and industrial workers, but peasants, intellectuals, school children, shop assistants, even tv news-readers, astronomers at the Meudon Observatory and strip-tease girls at the Folies Bergères. Immigrant workers from Algeria, Spain and Portugal, never unionized, struck for the first time. Universities and factories throughout the country were occupied. The scale of these events was far greater than 1936 or other comparable movements such as the British or Belgian General Strikes, the Argentinian Plan de Lucha of 1964, or the 1905 Revolution in Russia.
‘During a revolution millions and tens of millions of people learn in a
How do we explain this sudden switch of consciousness, this abrupt reversal from acceptance to rebellion, from obedience to mutiny? First, it is plain, we must reject all the ideological theories and misleading models of attitude change developed by bourgeois sociology: balance models, dissonance models, congruence models. They teach us nothing. Their ideological content is painfully obvious. They refuse to admit that the mind can act except according to the most shallow and stunted bourgeois ‘common sense’ and ‘rationality’. All must seek equilibrium and order. Every possibility of disorder and unreason must be discounted and expelled. Danger must be suppressed or corrected by homeostatic mechanisms. It is not difficult to understand why these theories flourish in the universities.
A previous salient example of the inability of sociologists to cope with sudden outbreaks of working-class militancy was provided by the episode of the Vauxhall works at Luton, recently analysed by Robin Blackburn.footnote2 John H. Goldthorpe, writing in the British Journal of Sociology (September 1966), reported his findings that no less than 77 per cent of the car workers he had studied enjoyed ‘a co-operative attitude to management’. Yet scarcely one month after the publication of Goldthorpe’s study the Vauxhall workers broke into open rebellion. Goldthorpe had been able to detect ‘little tendency to interpret employer-worker relations in fundamentally “oppositional terms”’ but this did not stop the workers trying to storm the main offices and fight with security guards. That outbreak involved one factory. The May Revolution in France involved hundreds of factories, shops and work-places. But the situation is basically the same. We need a theory of dual consciousness, a theory which can take account of abrupt and unexpected alternations and switches. Just as history shows uneven and combined development, so too does consciousness.
This means that we must reject those traditional theories of strategy
This is true even of the Bolshevik Party. As Trotsky pointed out, in February 1917 the masses ran ahead of the party, the party ran ahead of the leadership. When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, determined to shift the leadership leftwards, people thought he had gone mad. In the Tauride Palace, Bogdanov interrupted his reading of the April Theses with cries of ‘Delirium, the delirium of a madman’. ‘I came out on to the street,’ wrote Sukhanov, ‘feeling as though on that night I had been flogged over the head with a flail.’ Raskolnikov remarked: ‘The most respectable party workers were here. But for them too the words of Ilych were a veritable revelation. They laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of yesterday and those of today.’ The April Theses were published with a disclaimer in Pravda itself. Lenin was in a minority. Later, during June and July, the Bolshevik Party, under Lenin’s leadership, found itself forced to put a brake on the masses, to call them off the streets. The October insurrection was opposed by a large minority: Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, Frunze and others, both ‘practicals’ and ‘theoreticals’. During the flat normal expanses of time before February the Bolsheviks seemed far to the left; during the months between February and October the masses ran ahead of the vanguard. Their final coincidence produced the victorious assault on the Winter Palace.