After May 1968 (France): The Fourth International and revolutionary hope - Analyses, strategies and projects

During the period immediately after 1968, among the revolutionary communist currents, there was the strong conviction that the revolution was imminent or that in any case it would happen in the medium term, in five or ten years time in Europe. “History is biting the back of our necks,” as Daniel Bensaïd expressed it. It was therefore necessary to prepare for it and to think afresh about its bases: to think afresh, because it was not a matter of pasting on the references and experiences of a history and a tradition, in short of a political culture. This evolves and changes over time, especially since, in these currents, the concrete  analysis of the situation is often a priority: materialist attention to the conditions of possibility for action is the priority.

But as the 1970s progressed, this hope dwindled and weakened. The period was nevertheless still considered to be of high historical intensity and the theoretical proposals, in their renewal, were in keeping with that. The Chilean and Portuguese experiences, the overthrow of the dictatorship in Greece, the vagaries of the Union of the Left in France were, in fact, not just a context in which this theoretical commitment would find its setting: they constituted its supports. Because the deployment of theory was in no way abstract, it fed on the situation itself and constantly started from it in order to measure itself against it and be corrected by its effects.

Among the organizations of the revolutionary left, the Fourth International was distinguished by a certain political openness, resistant to sectarianism, and was characterized as one of the "hot currents" of Marxism, to use Ernst Bloch's formula, those which accord an essential place to subjectivity, to the capacity of the protagonists to act, in short to a humanist Marxism.1 “Against Althusser” and the movements inspired by it, this Trotskyist current defended voluntarism against objectivism and revolutionary initiative against the mechanics of structures.

It is all the more part of a transnational history of political projects in that it is precisely internationalist and seeks to be revolutionary, beyond borders. It thus equips itself with structures, sources, supports and translations that permit circulation. To demonstrate this, this text relies on sources that have been little or not at all explored until now: the archives of the Fourth International , dozens of boxes of which are still sleeping, almost untouched, in the cellars of the BDIC.2 Reports of internal meetings, preparations and interventions of international congresses and conferences, pamphlets, press and leaflets are all documents conducive to understanding this revolutionary hope, with its vagaries and oscillations.

It is therefore appropriate to consider a political culture, heterodox Marxist, in the ternary rhythm that it confers on its practice: examination of the social, economic and political situation; strategy to be implemented; programme and project for a society alternative to capitalism and the market economy: so many militant experiences, endowed with daily practices, circulating from one country to another and opening the way to a concrete utopia, to be understood in the strict sense of the word – an elsewhere, but achievable, opening up the field of possibilities.

I- From analysis of the social, economic and political situation to strategic development

The state of capitalism and its contradictions

The Fourth International proposed, in this conjuncture and starting from it, a renewed reflection on the structures of capitalism. As early as 1969, the observation was made of the exacerbation of inter-imperialist competition , with the beginning of a compression of the rate of profit.3 Capitalism must “remodel its productive apparatus from top to bottom” by abandoning entire sectors considered to be incapable of evolving . The diagnosis is also a prognosis: it announces a succession of privatizations in areas deemed profitable. 4

During an international conference which took place in June 1974, one of the main leaders of the Fourth International, Ernest Mandel, evoked the economic recession which affected most of the major capitalist countries, with resounding bankruptcies no longer only of small isolated companies but major groups. In Great Britain in particular, some of the largest private banks were on the verge of bankruptcy. Structural unemployment was the result of automation and the impressive increase in productivity. In 1973, a "hardly believable figure", productivity had apparently increased by almost 15 per cent in one year in Europe as a whole. However, “if each worker does 14 per cent more work per hour, but if production only increases by 5 to 7 per cent”, it can only lead to unemployment.5

This restructuring on a world scale supposed for the ruling classes a more thorough integration of the trade unions and consequently an accentuated “class collaboration”. Because one of the traditional remedies in times of economic difficulties is to use workers' organizations – or at least their leaderships – as a brake on potential social struggles. The argument is then that we must be cautious, be careful not to further alter a degraded economic climate. This discourse was held on the left in England, in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the Scandinavian countries; it was also the discourse to which Portuguese workers were entitled, having barely completed the “Carnation Revolution”. It was in a way the answer that the state intended to bring to the crisis opened by 1968 and then by the economic recession: to regain social peace.

Analysis of reformism

The Fourth International thus paid attention to the “organic integration” with the state of the organizations of the workers’ movement, characteristic of the Welfare State. For Jean-Marie Vincent, for example, the insertion of union activists into the “ institutional fabric of bourgeois society” through the arbitration of labour disputes, refers to a “contractual policy of regulating the cost of labour » of great strategic skill, since it puts « the workers’ movement in tow to a capitalism which it claims to be fighting while believing it is transforming it.6

The critique went hand in hand with the analysis of reformism and its developments at this stage of capitalism. The European communist parties, whose developments were the subject of careful analysis, were now characterized as "neo-reformist", having abandoned the revolutionary project in favor of a parliamentary path, pushing back the objective of socialism to an ever-increasingly distant horizon. The explanation given was internationalist: reformism appears as an option chosen to better preserve the interests of the USSR: "because it was necessary at all costs to prevent a revolution which would have compromised the world balance of forces and the fate of the Soviet bureaucracy, it was necessary to invent a theory of peaceful roads to socialism.7 But, by imagining reforms internal to the state, it was ultimately illusions that the leaders of the CPs were sowing.

An image was regularly put forward on this subject: facing capitalism, reformism behaved like someone faced with a particularly ferocious tiger but being content to wonder about "the tool to be used to file its teeth and claws without it realizing it”. However, “what was to be feared was that before it was disarmed, the tiger would eat the reformists and the workers' movement along with it”.8 Following on this, we were witnessing a reversal of the stigma attached to utopia: so often reproached to revolutionaries as unrealistic and lunar, it seemed to them rather specific to reformists. Indeed, the latter were still advancing Keynesian solutions in a period marked by the intensification of the liberalization of trade at the global level and by a decline in the profitability of capital. Keynesian stimulus could only deepen the crisis.

These international analyses of the period were based on local examples pooled through the United Secretariat: practical experiences were thus circulated.

II- Circulation of practical experiences. Modalities, impregnations, demands

Different methods of circulation

In the 1970s, the experiences of the militants of the Fourth International circulated in various ways through various vehicles. For example, newspapers like La Internacional were written in Spanish for Spanish emigrants in France. The last issue, dated December-January, probably 1975-1976, stated that it was reporting on "the most important events at the origin of the death agony of Francoism and the impetuous upsurge of the mass movement, from the mobilizations of 1970 against the trials in Burgos of Izko and his comrades: the great general strikes (Ferrol, Vigo, Besos , Pamplona…), the trials of the dictatorship, the struggles against the Marcellin-Fontanet circular, the collaboration of the French and Spanish governments, the Chilean counter-revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, etc… {La Internaciona}l, despite its irregularities, its limits and its deficiencies, aspired to be the voice of the revolutionary Marxists among the Spanish emigrants in France." The termination of {La Internacional} aimed to adapt, here again, to the “new demands of the political situation”. Indeed, previously two newspapers were distributed in parallel to Spanish emigrants: Combate, the newspaper of the LCR-ETA and La Internacional, a supplement to Rouge. However, the editorial of the last issue of La Internacional points out that "as the evolution of the political situation in Spain gains importance, maintaining two parallel papers, (Combate and La International), which reported on this political situation was proving increasingly superfluous. This is why we choose to replace them with an external edition of Combate, an emigration supplement.”9

To develop the campaign on abortion and contraception, the Fourth International compiled fact sheets on the issues country by country in this regard: "The following information has been gathered on the occasion of several international meetings and on the basis of the press of the sections of the Fourth International. It concerns the following countries: Germany, England, Australia, Belgium, Canada-Quebec , Denmark, Spain, United States, Holland, Mauritius, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand and Switzerland. It is dated (end of September 1978) and therefore subject to modification given the changing situation in a series of countries. It can be supplemented later and should partly serve as a basis for one of the chapters of the pamphlet that the LCR will be publishing in the framework of this campaign.”10

Finally, in addition to numerous articles in the national press - such as {Rouge} – pamphlets were prepared in the sections to report on what was happening elsewhere and the lessons that could be drawn from this. This was for example the case of a brochure entitled {Portugal, l’alternative}, in which it was explained in the introduction: “the articles of comrades Hansen and Foley analyse the situation in Portugal as being placed before the alternative : military dictatorship or bourgeois democracy. The article by comrades Mandel, Frank and Maitan, which expresses the position of the leadership of the Fourth International, presents the situation in Portugal as developing around the alternative: for or against the socialist revolution. The United Secretariat of the Fourth International has deemed it all the more necessary to publish together the articles in question in order to make this controversy public, since the problems discussed therein concern not only the march of the revolution in Portugal but also the development of the class struggle in Western Europe, and more particularly now in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. »11   There were not only published here texts of the Fourth International : indeed, the strategic orientations of the United Secretariat were part of debates which included other organizations expressing other traditions of the far left, in this case the current of the American SWP.

If therefore the exchanges took place in various publications, the strategic orientations of the Fourth International were also discussed on the occasion of numerous meetings.

Meetings: the example of workers' conferences

Considering this redistribution of the cards, what was the level of the class struggle according to the organization which, being Marxist, were based on and relied on it? In this area, the 1970s marked a turning point in the view of the International: because of the "creeping crisis of labour relations and social relations in general", "the working class in its vast majority no longer believes, as it did in the 1950s and 1960s, that capitalism is the bearer of continuous progress, in particular of growth gradually erasing poverty ”.12 That did not mean that it was more combative. Between the beginning and the end of the decade, there were approximately 4 million “individual working days lost due to strikes” in France. This figure can be considered quite high compared to the 1950s, but modest compared to the 1960s, and even particularly low compared to the Italian situation during the same period: during the Italian "creeping May", between 1971 and 1975 alone, there were 17 million strike days. The degree of struggle therefore still appeared intense; but it was weakened by the development of limited-term contracts and part-time work for women. Once again, the observation was accompanied by a forecast: the increase in precarious work would reduce the degree of combativeness.13

It was during their encounters in workers' conferences, for example, that the militants of the Fourth International exchanged views on workers' strikes in Europe, for example. On such occasions, an introductory report usually launched the discussion. In a report on the "tasks of revolutionaries in Europe" in 1974, "comrade Udry " dealt with the recent implantation of revolutionary militants in different sectors on a European scale, specifying that they were "capable of directly launching initiatives of an exceptionally high level. […] The maturation of such a phenomenon, through dozens of struggles, can lead in a few years to a situation radically different from that experienced in May ‘68, during a major social explosion.”14 This meant that « we must understand that tomorrow, very concretely, we will be able to launch initiatives on an international scale, admittedly limited, but whose exemplary nature will be extraordinary ».15 Taking, among other things, the example of the Common Market, the report dealt with the internationalization of capital and specified that this made all the more necessary the internationalization of struggles, that is to say the fact of conceiving their strategy no longer just on a national scale: “For several years, this has put international negotiations on collective contracts, European strikes, solidarity actions on a European scale on the agenda.”

The report then discussed concrete examples of struggles that had been marked by international solidarity (Kodak Vincennes; German workers of the Kodak subsidiary) and looked at how solidarity could develop in companies like Caterpillar16 , Seat-Fiat, or Rhône Progil which had factories in different European countries where revolutionary militants could act very concretely in a concerted manner. The report concluded as follows: “This requires a clear conception of opposition to any federalist idea of the International. This requires a political centralization which makes it possible to understand both the particularities and the general aspects. This is also the sine qua non for giving one of our essential achievements on a European scale, the slogan of the United Socialist States of Europe, a concrete content which, from now on, is being prepared in struggles, struggles which in turn indicate its immediate objective relevance.” In other words, it was important that the Fourth International should function as a centralized organization in order to succeed in implementing an orientation.

Demands and transitional programme

Based on these conclusions, the organization set itself a dual task, both theoretical and practical. The first lay in the formulation of slogans that would open the way to emerge from socio-political impotence. The idea was to start from the demands that emanated from struggles in order to move towards challenging the  power of the employers. Among these slogans figured the opening of companies' account books, the sliding scale of wages, the right of veto on production rates, recruitments and dismissals, through “workers' control”, an expression of an embryonic power frontally opposed to the logic of capitalist domination. These perspectives were intended to formulate, as closely as possible to the daily situation of employees, the contestation of the power exercised by employers:

“Because capitalism is characterized by the fact that Capital, that the capitalists, command men and machines. To contest this right to give orders; to oppose it with a power of another nature is to begin in practice the struggle for the overthrow of the capitalist regime.17

The situation could obviously differ according to the places and the countries concerned. In the Spanish state in transition towards the end of Francoism, activists insisted on the necessary defence of democratic demands and slogans linked to the question of nationalities. This appeared as a “precondition” for the organization to gain the trust of the population.18

The second axis resided in a practical method of intervention in struggles: it was a question of promoting there all the experiences of "direct democracy" or "workers' democracy", through  general assemblies, elected strike committees, committees of action, to relativize the centrality of power and open the way to other forms of democratic life.19

Getting used to exercising responsibilities, getting used to deciding for oneself: the method of "workers' democracy" proposed by revolutionary communist culture brings up "the old question that is constantly updated": "how can an exploited and dominated class become capable of taking power?".20 In this political current, the French Revolution was analysed as an essentially bourgeois revolution, in and through which the seizure of political power was the crowning point of an already dominant position on the social and economic level. On the contrary, the proletariat remained dominated and deprived of any shred of power; it must get used to seizing it, according to a democratic form opposed to parliamentary delegation, considered to be a relegation to a resigned passivity.

But it was not a question of raising this question of  power, of control by the workers and the reappropriation at the level of the workplace alone, but also on the terrain of ecology, of the relationship to consumption and in many other areas: control of the population over the environment and town planning in particular, self-reductions in supermarkets, "red markets", "self-organized crèches", requisitions of housing, collective refusal of excessively high rents, direct actions in transport with the junction between workers in the sector and users. It was necessary “to organise the urban struggles and all the struggles against the capitalist way of life”, but also “to make the dynamics of the women's liberation movement penetrate into the workers' movement”.21

This approach, which Leon Trotsky called "transitional", seeks to find an articulation between immediate demands and the seizure of power, through collective decision-making and the incorporation of "demystifying habits": politics is not necessarily situated at the level of the government or parliament. Such a method is thought of as a long preparatory work for the revolution; it breaks with passivity and the abandonment of decision-making to “specialists” and “qualified people”. In this sense, revolution presupposes a cycle of struggle and impregnation, far removed from the “Lightning Revolution” that Henri Weber described at the time as a “fable”.22 Contrary to the “Big Day” and its capital letters, the revolutionary event is neither denied nor denied; but it presupposes, before its advent, a habituation to the progressive radicalization of struggles, integrating a revived democratic practice.

Throughout the decade, the Fourth International therefore maintained self-organization as its political and strategic compass. It was obviously confronted with self-management, a keyword if there ever was one during those years. LIP was a reference but, as Charles Piaget himself said, it was even more about self-defence. LIP's “worker insolence”23   was a point of support for “an education of the working class vanguard on the question of power”.24 Ernest Mandel insisted on the “capacity for crystallization” contained by the idea of self-management. After the criticisms of the term around 1968, it was now a question of fully embracing this idea. But not at any price or condition. The organization refused projects of fragmented self-management, of Proudhonian or anarcho-syndicalist origin, which appeared more like "simulacra of self-management": they indeed give illusions if they remain limited to a few companies and in reality favour self -exploitation ; they also mask, as in Yugoslavia, a certain political centralization to the benefit of a party, in this case the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, where the monopoly of power remained in the hands of the bureaucracy. Self-management must therefore be defined as an exercise of power by workers at all levels of social life, against any form of bureaucratic socialism.25

Economic centralization was accepted, however. It had nothing to do with a taste for economic profitability: Mandel recalled that, unlike Lenin, the Fourth International was not seduced by Taylorism, which above all serves capitalism as an efficient technology for maximum valorisation of capital. It was necessary to be able to count on other technological developments, as did the engineers at the heart of revolutionary processes, the chemists in Cuba for example, who developed sucrochemicals from sugar waste, instead of petrochemicals. It was hoped that one day, technologies would enable relatively small production units. But, as things were, that was not the case. The technology inherited from capitalism was very centralized: for example, power stations where two hundred or three hundred workers work could supply electricity to a million people; in the paper industry, a single machine produced the quantity sufficient for the consumption of several millions. "In such a context, it is totally utopian to want to divide economic decision-making at the level of what can be decided in an enterprise". The choice was therefore not between "bureaucratic centralization" and "decentralized self-management": the Fourth International affirmed itself in favour of democratically centralized self-management or planned self-management: not because of an ideal of centralization, but because It was an objective necessity which corresponded to the reality of economic life. “If centralization is not done in a conscious, i.e. planned, deliberate way, then it will be done in a spontaneous, anarchic way, behind the backs of workers and producers”.26

The organization also highlighted the right of inspection and control of workers' organizations in education and in the barracks, the unionization of soldiers so that they could demand their rights as workers in uniform, the lifting of professional secrecy clauses or the duty of reserve which bind the personnel of the state. However, “it is not a question of investing the state but of weighing on its contradictions in order to break the mechanisms”.27 Thus in Portugal, within the Movement of the Armed Forces, the political line supported by the Unified Secretariat was a deepening of the fractures in the army, in particular by the constitution of committees of soldiers, in connection with the workers' unions.28

This conception of work within the state itself and against it was partly the result of opposition to other strategies: the so-called "Italian" strategy, which was increasingly oriented towards integration into the state in order to fight within it, and that put forward by Nicos Poulantzas, for whom the revolution ceases to be “an armed confrontation with the state”.29 The criticism addressed to them, within the Fourth International, was that they did not maintain a critical attitude towards “representative democracy”. In the long term, the place of the councils risked being subordinated to the parliamentary form. That would be a trap  that would lead to a classic reformism, ultimately abandoning any revolutionary perspective.

This fear was neither abstract nor disconnected from the historical situation. It was supported by recent and burning examples. In Chile, the supply committees were quickly liquidated in the name of parliamentary democracy, as were the revolutionary nuclei in the army and the workers' councils. In Portugal, the sovereignty of the Constituent Assembly also took precedence over the workers' commissions. However, direct democracy is not “one democratic form among others”: it is a “higher form”. Daniel Bensaïd insisted: "as Gramsci had lucidly perceived from the experience of {Ordino Nuovo}, through the committees, councils or soviets, the worker overcomes the fracture between man and citizen, the split between the private man and the public man, the lesion between the economic and the political”.30

To the notion of "long process" put forward by Poulantzas, they responded by recalling that the tearing apart of the social consensus and the established order would in fact take place at the end of an accumulation of experiences and that it would indeed be a process. However, there was no reason to erase the idea of rupture, which continued to be embodied in the strategic hypothesis of the insurrectionary and self-organized general strike : this was “a guiding line for daily revolutionary practice stretching towards a final goal, instead of floating through improvisations”.31

III– Militant practices

The daily life of activists

In France, very soon after 1968, criticism circulated about a certain "juvenilism " that supposedly characterized the Revolutionary Communist Youth. In this respect, two phases of self-criticism can be distinguished. The first begins around 1970. Its dominant features consist in the rejection of "triumphalism": the revolution is not for tomorrow, it is therefore necessary to settle into a new temporality, the long term, which supposes a solidification of the organization . The organization's " March 22”32 features , inherited from the March 22 Movement, were condemned, such as the fact of campaigning in front of factories without having any activists there, of going from one workplace to another, from one struggle to another, without taking the time to settle down and take root there. “Enthusiasm, youth, the feeling of being on the right track, brilliance and cunning are no longer enough to continue to progress”; it is now necessary to prepare for a " protracted confrontation with the still powerful bourgeois state and [for] an equally prolonged hand-to-hand combat with the equally strong workers' bureaucracies" .33 This tactical reassessment amounted to patiently building the party, and also consolidating it, implying also including in it a part of clandestinity in order to prepare for a probable violent combat. The second turning point dates from June 21, 1973, the day of the demonstration organized against a meeting of the far-right organization Ordre Nouveau: clashes with the police led to the banning of the Ligue Communiste.34 This post-June 1973 self-criticism involved the rejection of the “Guevarist” period of the organization.35 It was now necessary to work like a "mole" - the animal was then the real mascot of the Ligue, declined in its newspapers, not without humour, in reference to the exclamation of Marx in {The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte} : “Well dug, old mole!”, itself borrowed from Shakespeare. But it was really necessary to take the time to dig deeper and no longer cling to this “hurried Leninism”, as Régis Debray said about Guevarism . One can also see there an implicit criticism of the famous formula, forged by Daniel Bensaïd and already quoted: “history is biting our necks”. It was a "long war of position" which must now be engaged. As Jean-Paul Salles points out, “an orientation favouring a more classic ‘working-class work’ is taking shape”.36 After years of unbridled activism, it was therefore necessary to “relearn the rhythms of recomposition of the workers’ movement”, “the stubborn preparation of the revolution“.37 All of this was not without producing some disarray among the activists.

The state of mind of the activists

The period immediately after 1968 appeared to be a happy militant era. "The revolution was knocking at the door”.38 The upheaval of society and the overthrow of capitalism referred to an immediate future. The national and international context supported the assertion of this conviction: the decolonizations, the anti-imperialist movements all over the world, in particular in Cuba and Vietnam, the May and June strike as a "dress rehearsal", were supposed to testify to it. More than a hope, it was an assurance. Activists lived this moment in the radical certainty that tomorrow would be different. Their existence in the present was entirely impregnated with it: their personal journey, their studies, their career orientations took on less importance, as they were sure that their future would take place in a society free from oppression and exploitation. This better explains the sociability where the spheres of life were intertwined: the political commitment, although it was intense, appeared all in all to be socially “inexpensive”.39 The boundary then passed less between “us” and “me” than between “us” and “them”. Them: the ruling class, the capitalist bourgeoisie, the bosses, the rulers.

The reflection on the subject of the “me” and of emotions was born from a change of period, certainly grdaual, without sudden jolts, but which established itself in stages and was accompanied by a questioning that became, little by little, painfully sharp. A first phase was situated at the beginning of the 1970s: questions arose on the “revolutionary optimism”, even the “triumphalism” which had prevailed until then. Internal texts conceded that “the confrontation with the bourgeoisie” would be “prolonged”; its outcome was now postponed to an indeterminate future, and this new uncertainty had consequences for individual attitudes.40 For example, in a "cell" bringing together employees of the SNCF and the Dassault company in the Paris region, several activists criticized one of their comrades whose optimism seemed to them exaggerated ; they castigated the "expression of his state of general bliss", his "euphoric bias", denying the difficulties of implantation, to conclude harshly: "Be careful that one day, by dint of advancing in the direction of history with a blissful smile on your lips, you won't swallow a wasp”.41 It is posture itself that is in question here, in sarcastic irony, right down to physical stature: in the criticism there are entwined the visible characteristics (overconfidence, which can be read on the face, and the reprobation that it arouses) and political characterization, even if, in the final analysis, it is indeed politics that takes precedence in these feelings and resentments. The divergence relates to the assessment of the situation, but it undeniably arouses emotions.

However, the real chronological turning point is later, around 1975-1976. The mid-1970s was struck by the shrinking of possibilities, the dissolution of the horizon, which Krystof Pomian would later name “the crisis of the future”.42 The observation was even more valid for these organizations: the activists became revolutionaries without a revolution. A wave of texts, for internal or public use, reflected the effects engendered on activists by such a situation, which was always experienced intensely and sometimes dramatically. Some referred to the "recruitment of a certain type of activists who came to the organization, believing in the revolution for tomorrow and therefore running 'on enthusiasm'", "unprepared for a long war of position".43 From then on, the theme of “activist anguish” developed, an expression used by Daniel Bensaïd to conclude his book published in 1976, {La Révolution et le Pouvoir}. Delicately, and therefore briefly, he reported suicides on the far left, the despair which gripped some activists, and, for the first time, the "intimate stress and crisis of the activist". Contrasting with the generally assured or even peremptory style of the theoretical production, this final chapter approached “the daily life of the activist”, made up more of “anxieties” than of “untouchable truths”. Doubt penetrated the core now. The “cloak of the way of life floats, too ample, on the robust skeleton of theory”, a theory thus laid bare in the face of these fragilities. Also embedded in this self-reflexive text is the fear of authoritarian tendencies, as if the spectre of "Soviet" totalitarianism had come to haunt activists’ consciences and engender a terror of tipping into a new oppression, which this time would be the work of the revolution itself. “The activist fears to discover the visage of this power which trembles at the end of his acts. He carries within him his inner gulag, which never ceases to challenge him”. However, these questions still remained little addressed, because the “superego weighs like a dome”: the revolutionary ideal, the revolt against the existing order leaves little weight to questions about commitment and activist states of mind.44

Yet it was these states of mind that now had the right of citizenship. While it took upon itself to address this questioning, Daniel Bensaïd 's book provoked a rather negative reaction in the ranks of the organization, in particular through several articles published in the {Critique communiste} magazine. Their authors criticized him for not having gone far enough in the questioning, for not having sufficiently politicized it. There was indeed a “crisis of activism”, but it was a “political fact”.45 “The personal is political”, according to the formula launched by Women's Lib and taken up in France in particular by the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF); it was therefore necessary to politicize these questions and not to personalize them; it was precisely the fact of not having considered these questions as political, of having confined “politics” within too narrow a perimeter, ultimately narrow, which brought these discouragements to incandescence or despair.

“Activist anguish” was the fruit of a history, that of the night of Stalinism, that of the time when it was “midnight in the century”, as Victor Serge wrote. "Stalinism has definitely killed the 'innocent' militant". The “era of doubt” had set in. But it was also necessary to overcome the temptation of desolation, through active and political suspicion: “to act today is to act in doubt and permanent criticism. It is necessarily healthy”. Awareness of the “stresses and strains” that split the experience of revolutionary activists was also a determined call for frank and open questioning of affectivity.46

New fault lines were precisely expressed now. Among them: the divide between public and private. Denise Avenas and Alain Brossat were not afraid to evoke “the impossibility of overcoming the gap” between private existence and political commitment.47 Frédérique Vinteuil spoke for her part of “the so-called private life”, “this private life that the tradition of the workers' movement considers only as a limit, a threat to public life”.48 The distancing indicated the difficulty of approaching the subject, the taboos that must be overcome in order to better confront it. The new element here was due to this insistent questioning, in obvious connection with global social evolutions, the “revolution” of feminism and sexualities in particular, but also the influence of psychoanalysis, then at the height of its political ascendancy. Once again, what mattered in the ranks of the organization was the politicization of the issue. It was  really taken head on – the body also occupied a place in its own right. A certain number of articles reported on the intimate contradictions which assailed revolutionary activists, protesters against the society in which they nevertheless had to live. And it was this tug of war that was a source of stress, through the “contradiction between consciousness and existence” making “revolutionary life deeply insecure”.49 The fracture came from the fact that the militants wished to be the “negativity of the bourgeoisie” but “belong to this society like any antithesis to the thesis”, proceeding from it, like “the product and the poison”.50

From feminist intervention to the place of women in the organization

Whatever the response finally brought to these debates, the activists at least took hold of it, a sign of another “What is to be done? in times of ebb and relative disarray. They no longer neglected its importance and the consciousness that came from it. It was during the 1970s, obviously in connection with the feminist movements, that this political current developed a real reflection on the place of women in society in general and in revolutionary organizations in particular. Beyond that, women played an important role in the theoretical and practical elaboration on the subject of the individual in the party and the place of emotions. This could be seen as confirmation of the differentialist approach, according to which women are in essence more concerned about others – because of their upbringing and therefore of a psychosocial construction. But the role that they played in the dynamic impelled to these discussions was also due to the awareness of what the organization imposed on them. Women represented 29 per cent of the members of the LCR in December 1974, but they were only 16 per cent in the executive bodies.51 Although the Ligue was the most committed of the Trotskyist organizations to the feminist movement, certain activists nevertheless evoked the “ phallocratism ” which continued to reign there, even if it had “disappeared in its crudest forms”. They pointed the finger at the implicit codes of the service d’ordre (responsible for the security and protection of the organization), criticizing the “cowboy” airs of its activists and the way they flexed their muscles. They targeted certain physical postures adopted by male activists in meetings, as an insistent reaffirmation of their virility: polemical excesses, determined gestures, tone and voice, determined to impose their views52 … Such attitudes involved the activist in his very person; they referred to his psychology, calibrated against the yardstick of supposed, internalized and even, in the strict sense, incorporated collective norms. The novelty lay in the fact that it was now possible to speak about them, indeed to contest them. The work of unveiling them that was carried out mainly by women – but some men also took part in it – turned out to be essential, in that it denaturalized and repoliticised the manifestations of the “me” and their implications for the organization.

Some also drew attention to the consequences of the frequent existence of activist couples in the party. In fact, endogamy concerned more than 60 per cent of members: this phenomenon “seems to stem from the activist way of life” “and even to reinforce it by avoiding sources of conflict or identity-based tension”.53 The demands and the intransigence of this commitment, overflowing into the sphere of intimacy, were characterized by some as being at the origin of this reinforced intertwining between private life and activist life. The organization was a meeting place; it united not only political but affective bonds; in view of this investment, endogamy allowed the avoidance – relative however – of quarrels relating to the distribution and allocation of daily time. However, it was a source of other conflicts, highlighted by some activists: they raised in particular the problem of couples meeting in the same cell, with the obvious advantage of activist time spent together and the disadvantage, less visible and more insidious, of a reproduced male domination: hesitation of women before speaking out, relative submission to the proposals and ideas of their companion, lack of initiative in working out ideas...54

Once again, several positions were expressed on the subject. No one questioned the existence of “women's groups” or “consciousness-raising groups” whose work was “centred on lived experience” – these unmixed meetings were inspired by the practices of the feminist movement. However, some rejected the "theorization of the role of women in the organization" and rebelled against the idea that they had a "mission, because of certain problems relating to speech, power relations, violence, to change the relationships of forces in the organization”. In their eyes, this would confine women to a “reactionary role”: that of “peacemaker”.55 Once again, therefore, the argument proceeded from politicization. In this case, it was a question of opposing essentialized differentialism – even though at the time it was still little theorized.56


We have tried to grasp in a few words the essential strategic orientations put forward by the Fourth International in a decade marked by mass mobilizations raising real revolutionary hope in a certain number of European countries and their effects on practical political activity. at the same time as so-called “second wave” feminist movements were also developing in many of these countries. We have mentioned some of the channels through which not only elements of appreciation of the various situations circulated, but also strategic debates. It should also be emphasized that, in the midst of these debates, there is a certain humour and even a form of self-irony, perhaps to ward off the difficulty of always being a small minority. A drawing published in February 1981 in {Barricades}, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Youth, shows Trotsky alone in the middle of nowhere, in the open sea, on a raft: the political moral was, you have to know how to row against the current. This characteristic mischievousness no doubt helped to “hold on”, from an individual and militant point of view.

This text was first published in History @ Politics. 42, 2020. European new lefts and extreme lefts put to the test of the 1970s

Translated by

Ludivine Bantigny and Fanny Gallot are historians.

  • 1See Razmig Keucheyan, {Hémisphère gauche. Une cartographie des nouvelles pensées critiques} Paris, La Découverte/Zones, 2010, p. 315.
  • 2La Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine (Contemporary International Documentation Library), in Nanterre.
  • 3Cf. Ligue Communiste, Bulletin rouge de discussion. “Controle ouvrier”, November 1969, BDIC Q exhibit 8316.
  • 4Pierre Julien, “1978: un tournant ? »,Critique communiste, n° 26, February 1979, p. 13.
  • 5Report by Ernest Mandel, « La crise de l’Europe capitaliste », Workers’ Conference of the Front communiste révolutionnaire and the Taupe Rouge groups, 1,2,3 June 1974, unclassified BDIC archives
  • 6Jean-Marie Vincent, « Les voies du réformisme », Critique communiste, n° 32, June 1980, p. 122-128.
  • 7Ligue communiste, Discussion bulletin, « Le contrôle ouvrier », November 1969, p. 13, BDIC, Q piece 8316.
  • 8Ibid.
  • 9BDIC, La Internacional, n°16, December-January, probably 1975-76.
  • 10BDIC, Travail femmes, Avortement-contraception.
  • 11Cahiers Rouge n°4, {Portugal, l’alternative}, La Taupe Rouge.
  • 12Jean-Marie Vincent, “Sur le programme commun”, Critique communiste, n° 15, April 1977, p. 10.
  • 13Pierre Julien, “1978 : un tournant ?”, op. cit.
  • 14BDIC, Workers’ Conference of the Front Communiste Révolutionnaire (FCR) and the Taupe Rouge groups, 1,2,3 juin 1974.
  • 15Ibid
  • 16“Caterpillar is a global trust with extraordinary strength. You know that they produce construction machines: tractors with levelling chains, loaders, etc. It is capable of supporting at the same time, if these strikes are disorderly, strikes in Belgium, in France, in Grenoble, strikes in Glasgow. But at Caterpillar, we have comrades. We have comrades from Caterpillar in Grenoble here, we have contacts and we work on Caterpillar in Belgium and similar work could develop in Glasgow. In Grenoble, there are two factories: Caterpillar-Grenoble, Caterpillar- Eschirolles . In Grenoble and Eschirolles , they do machining, welding and assembly. They are the only factoriess that produce chain tractors in Europe. On the other hand, in Belgium, in Gosle, the engines are produced. In Japan and in Glasgow in Scotland, the cylinders are produced which, for all these load instruments, are obviously essential. You notice the division of production into three types of enterprises, and obviously the possibilities of solidarity that there are. I am going to take a concrete example: in May-June 1973, a struggle developed in Grenoble, a struggle that got off to a good start, which seemed to have the unanimous support of the workers, but which was slowly to deteriorate to the extent that the bureaucracy refused the occupation of the factory. The demand for 200 francs for all was at the centre of the struggle, and this, of course, could be generalized to the whole of the trust. This demand could be taken up in Scotland as well as in Gosle in Belgium…”, BDIC, Workers’ Conference of the Revolutionary Communist Front (FCR) and Taupe Rouge groups, June 1,2,3, 1974.
  • 17« Pour le contrôle ouvrier », {Rouge}, n° 10, 22 January 1969.
  • 18Eleventh World Congress of the Fourth International, 1979, Minutes and amendments, archives BDIC, unclassified.
  • 19Daniel Bensaïd, “Grève générale, front unique, dualité de pouvoir”, Critique communiste, n° 26, January 1979, p. 72.
  • 20Daniel Bensaïd, op. cit., p. 62
  • 21René Yvetot, « Sur quelques problèmes du contrôle ouvrier », Critique communiste, n° 17-18, September 1977.
  • 22Henri Weber, « Transition au socialisme : sur quelques points de clivage dans le débat en cours », Critique communiste, n° 8/9, September-October 1976, p. 10-11.
  • 23Jean-Marie Vincent, « La politique n’est plus ce qu’elle était », Critique communiste, n° 23, May 1978.
  • 24Denis Berger, « 1936-1976. La révolution est-elle possible en France ? », Critique communiste, n° 14, February 1977, p. 106.
  • 25Ernest Mandel, « L’autogestion socialiste », Workers’ Conference of the Front communiste révolutionnaire and the Taupe Rouge groups, 1,2,3 June 1974, archives BDIC, unclassified.
  • 26Ibid.
  • 27Ibid.
  • 28Bensaïd Daniel, « Eurocommunisme, austromarxisme et bolchevisme », Critique communiste n° 18/19, October-November, 1977, p. 165.
  • 29Nicos Poulantzas, interviewed by Henri Weber, « L’État et la transition au socialisme », Critique communiste, n° 16, June 1977
  • 30Daniel Bensaïd, « Grève générale, front unique, dualité de pouvoir », {Critique communiste} n° 26, January 1979, p. 5 et seq.
  • 31Daniel Bensaïd, « Eurocommunisme, austromarxisme et bolchevisme », op. cit., p. 194.
  • 32Ibid.
  • 33Text from an internal bulletin of the SNCF and Dassault cell of the Ligue Communiste, 1970 (autumn ?), BDIC F delta 427.
  • 34“Several hundred helmeted militants, armed with pick-axe handles and Molotov cocktails, clashed with the police who tried to intervene. Several police officers were injured” (Jean-Paul Salles, La Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (1968-1981), p. 89).
  • 35Concerning the JCR just before 1968, Jean-Paul Salles analyses that it "appeared in many respects more Guevarist than Trotskyist" (Jean-Paul Salles, La Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, op. cit ., p. 49 ). He also notes that "it was not until the Eleventh World Congress of the Fourth International, in 1979, that the international majority, to which the Ligue belonged, made a self-critical examination of the the guerrilla line which had prevailed in Latin America throughout the decade” (p. 71).
  • 36Jean-Paul Salles, La Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (1968-1981), op. cit., p. 143
  • 37Puech, « Crise du mode de vie. Problèmes du militantisme », undated. [autumn 1976], FP 4117, BDIC.
  • 38Claire's testimony, (collected and quoted by Florence Johsua), “De la LCR au NPA (1966-2009). Sociologie politique des métamorphoses de l’engagement anticapitaliste » , political science thesis under the supervision of Nonna Mayer, IEP de Paris, 2011, p. 115.
  • 39Stéphanie Rizet, {La Distinction militante}, p. 134.
  • 40Text from an internal bulletin of the SNCF and Dassault cell of the Ligue Communiste, 1970, BDIC F delta 427.
  • 41Committee of the SNCF and Dassault cell, “Adresse à Buzard en guise d’ultime réponse sur la réorganisation”, undated (end of 1970?), BDIC, F delta 427.
  • 42Krzyztof Pomian, « La crise de l’avenir », Le Débat, n°7, 1980/7, pp. 5-17.
  • 43Tendency B, « Construire le parti révolutionnaire : où en sommes-nous huit ans après 68 », undated, [1976], BDIC, FP 4117.
  • 44Daniel Bensaïd , La Révolution et le pouvoir, Paris, Stock, 1976, p. 415-428.
  • 45Denise Avenas, Alain Brossat, « Notre génération », Critique communiste, n° 11-12, December 1976-January 1977, p. 21-26
  • 46Frédérique Vinteuil, « Militer sans mythologie », Critique communiste, n° 11-12, December 1976-January 1977, p. 63-71.
  • 47Denise Avenas, Alain Brossat, « Notre génération », op. cit., p. 46-48.
  • 48Frédérique Vinteuil, « Militer sans mythologie », op. cit., p. 66.
  • 49Hector Leans, « Mode d’existence et fragilité de la conscience communiste », Critique communiste, n° 11-12, December 1976-January 1977, p. 72 et 80-82.
  • 50Michel Lequenne, « Vie militante et vie quotidienne », Critique communiste, n° 11-12, December 1976-January 1977, p. 56-57.
  • 51Jean-Paul Salles, La Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (1968-1981), op. cit., p. 197
  • 52Maud, Prisca, Hoffmann, Madras, “Vie quotidienne et action communiste. Working paper of Tendency 3 “, document cited.
  • 53Stéphanie Rizet, La Distinction militante, op. cit., p. 352.
  • 54Maud, Prisca, Hoffmann, Madras, op. cit.
  • 55Tendency A, « Crise de l’organisation et crise du parti révolutionnaire », September 1976, BDIC, FP 4117.
  • 56Cf. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, Garden City, Doubleday, 1970..

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