After the Other May (1981)

Editorial Introduction: Written in the aftermath of the May 1981 presidential elections in France, which saw the unexpected victory of Socialist Party candidate François Mitterrand, this article by Balibar also expands on facets of the earlier “crisis of Marxism” debate elicited by Althusser. It thus accomplishes two difficult tasks: a concrete analysis of the socio-political situation in France (drawing on Poulantzas) and the prospects for left forces in the 1980s, and a historical and materialist analysis of the standing of workers’ parties and organizations in the history of postwar capitalism. Balibar has no illusions about the electoral victory: he perceptively identifies the irreversible decline of these mass workers’ parties and trade unions in Western Europe and the falling away of the historical conditions that produced them, and the need to develop a “political language” and organizational forms that speak to the realities of present struggles and social subjects. 1 Near the end of the piece, Balibar indicates the scale of such a shift in strategy, tactics, and conceptions of militancy, and what it might entail: “a mass democratic politics, the coördination of popular initiatives, collectively-led concrete analyses, programs of action,” touching on the spheres of work, culture, everyday life, and political institutions. Unfortunately, his other prediction about the enduring significance of Mitterrand’s social democratic government, should this restructuring of left politics fail, is what actually came to pass:  “a configuration fixed in place by immediate political imperatives or by attempts at a ‘historic compromise’ à la fraaise between popular demands and a capitalist ‘economic logic,’ which the dissatisfaction of the grassroots would be powerless to shake – would obviously mean a rapid and disastrous failure, and would take the workers’ movement decades to recover from.”


The new situation produced in France by Francois Mitterrand and the Socialist Party’s victory in the spring 1981 elections, in counter step and counter time to the authoritarian and “neoliberal” trends observable elsewhere, has caused a reality – in many respects ungraspable – to emerge, which is not an extension of the tendencies visible since May ’68 nor those expressed by the “Common Program” on the left since 1972.

The reflections I am presenting here do not have the illusory aim of completely unpacking this paradoxical situation, but only seek to locate certain reference points and raise certain lines of questioning we might try to pursue in the months to come, to see things more clearly from the perspective of left forces.

1. The Effect of Surprise

This effect (which the present leadership [le pouvoir actuel] has tried to make use of by baptizing it a “state of grace”) is an important index of the novelty of the situation we find ourselves in, even if it has nothing to do with a miraculous transmutation of the given state of the class struggle. It does involve a reshuffling of the cards, which very few “political minds” were prepared for. Everything has happened as if last May-June, “France” was discovered to have a different political composition and social balance of forces than most people imagined. But this effect is, by nature, very ambivalent.

Significantly, this effect of surprise concerns both “camps” in question, at one and the same time. It indeed appears that the French bourgeoisie, and especially the heads of French big capital, were effectively caught unawares by events. It would be difficult without this fact to explain the systematically “anti-social” policies, necessarily very unpopular and with an oft-provocative tinge, the government has pursued over the past few years. Yet this effect is neither the effect of a particular bêtise of the French right, nor the ruling class’s natural blindness towards the class struggle. On the contrary, after 1978 the French bourgeoisie had excellent reasons to believe that the left would not come into power, and to sense the moment had arrived to push through to a crucial stage in the “restructuring” of the conditions of exploitation and “rationalizing” of workers’ conditions of life.

The electoral defeat of 1978 and the conflict it fostered among the left – however one assesses in the end the respective “responsibilities” of the socialist and communist leaderships in the rupture of 1977 – effectively signified a definitive dissolution of the Union of the Left as it had existed until that point, both as a conflictual equilibrium between the parties and as the political form within which social movements, anti-capitalist struggles, and popular “democratic” or “self-management” aspirations could combine, in one way or another [tant bien que mal]. 2

But the leadership of the PCF also clearly banked on [tabler sur] this dissolution between 1978 and 1981. Convinced that the only possibility for the French left to rise to power lay in the prior contract between both principal parties, the PCF persuaded itself that it had the capacity to derail [faire échouer] Mitterrand’s candidacy. It took the risk of seriously weakening its electoral base. 3 But this was a price the PCF leadership was willing to pay, as it was seen as a temporary phenomenon; it would also be possible after the fact to “propose” a new union (from “below” or from “above”…) by setting its conditions. I will not focus on what this gamble meant from a class viewpoint, nor the effects, obviously poorly understood, such a “policy of making things worse” [politique du pire] had within the party itself, which was much more deeply shaken up than the leadership imagined. What should be called the intelligence of the popular electorate was correct to refuse and circumvent it.

It must be stated, finally, that if the negative “strategy” of the communist leadership was perfectly clear, to call a spade a spade, then it is difficult to contest that this was also the meaning of the recentering of the Confédération française démocratique du travail, [CFDT], applied by certain tendencies in the Socialist Party. The Socialists seem to have believed to have found the occasion to exploit the national and international crisis of the communist movement in order to “re-balance” the apparatus of workers’ organizations in their favor. In fact, one can notice these two symmetrical “recenterings” in the discourse wielded by George Marchais and Edmond Maire, and in the practice of their organizations. Both considered the argument for an electoral victory in 1981 as doubtful or undesirable. In both cases, those militants who either tried to preserve or repair previous forms of unity, or tried to explore new forms, were expelled or reduced to silence. The effects have not ceased to be felt today.

In these conditions, the “united” position assumed by the PS leadership, the common ground for its majority tendencies, openly ran the risk of changing objective content, so as to now only represent a politics of gaining a monopoly on aspirations for social change, and a control of the “summits” of the state apparatus…

The dissolution of the Union of the Left thus was not only the fragmentation of an electoral apparatus. It was above all, and this will be seen shortly, the disappearance of a crucial political condition for the development of social struggles and an offensive popular movement.

Of course, in the 1970s the Union of the Left and the Common Program had very ambivalent effects on the development of social struggles. Everyone knows that they were heavily burdened by the strategies of apparatuses and electoral opportunism. These struggles existed nonetheless, at a level and with a continuity that extended the upheaval of May ’68. The fact is, on the ground, the bourgeoisie and the employers immediately perceived the change in the balance of forces that followed the 1978 defeat. Struggles became defensive, even desperate – with their “backs to the wall” 4 – which is explainable not only through the intensification of economic crisis and unemployment, but by the erasure of a political perspective. They were fast accompanied by a progressively deeper break on the union front, which continues today more than ever. The Confédération générale du travail [CGT], CFDT, and the Fédération de l’Education nationale had become in their respective ways “active participants” in the Union of the Left; with a perspective, largely taken up from below despite their weaknesses, that pushed towards unity in the syndicalist movement. But despite resistance from within the three unions (including their leaderships), the dissolution of the Union of the Left ended up creating an increasingly deeper division between them, whose roots lay at once in the shift in the very conditions of trade unionism, divergences in corporative interests, and very old ideological antagonisms. French employers could immediately measure their resultant advantage.

How could one envision that in these conditions, the workers’ movement, battered by its own divisions and its own relatively worsening crisis, would find a way out of a moment of full-on retreat?

One conclusion emerges from these findings, and must be illustrated in detail: the Union of the Left, whatever its formula, did not carry the 1981 elections. Retaining the same word in this or that particular discourse can only cover a mystification, a tactical artifice.

Of course, this phenomenon is not important in itself, as it could only be one incident. What is important are its historical consequences stemming from the contradictory role played by the left political parties and their “union” in the social movement up to the present moment. How to interpret this unforeseen progression from a historic defeat (1978), followed immediately by a historic victory (1981), however fragile, and which took the form of the Socialist Party’s accession to government, according to a schema that many socialists themselves did not anticipate? Perhaps one can start by noting that they are not situated on exactly the same terrain. And by consequence, if the second mitigates some of the effects of the first, it does not cancel them straight away.

This means both that a form of popular “unity” of a new type and with new components – doubtless fragile and provisional, but real – has taken shape, whose principal aspect is no longer the contract between political parties, and that the previous rupture of the Union of the Left continues to produce negative effects. Both aspects are masked by the apparent coherence of the “unity of state” which, as such, is also a reproduction of divisions. And it would be completely naïve to imagine that the (National and international) bourgeoisie, while taken aback by this new unity, will not manipulate this underlying division to its benefit.

French workers have managed to seize a “last chance” on their behalf: the problem they now face is to make this the “first chance” of a lasting transformation of society. No one can solve this problem for them. But it’s very much the problem they have been effectively posed.

2. A Decisive Political Change

This political change is therefore not a “solution,” but in introducing a completely new element to the situation, it opens up a perspective of social change and (struggles) that from 1977-1979 seemed irredeemably compromised. Clearly, this change could not have happened without the conjunctural combination of two political – and institutional – factors that should not be conflated: one is the new role the Socialist Party was able to play, the other is the function Mitterrand is now invested with by the vote of May 10.

The Socialist Party has never shown itself capable of gaining a organic implantation in the world of exploited labor, especially in the enterprises, even if its positions have found an interest and support there. But it has shown itself capable of “regulating” in its favor, at the ideological level of public opinion, the crisis in apparatuses that emerged after 1977, long prepared by the weaknesses in the Union of the Left. As such, this fact calls for neither joy nor sadness. But at the same time, it does mean that masses of workers decided – in not a concerted fashion, but not an “unconscious” one either – to favor this “way out,” in a very specific conjuncture. This would not have happened if the PS, with all its limits and contradictions, had not over the past few years succeeding in building a militant network, which expressed within itself the essential tendencies of the current social dynamic and provided them with a credible overall articulation at the right moment. 5

It is true that this situation applied before the “perilous leap” of the test of power. But under the conditions in France, and given the sharpness of the class confrontations in the preceding period, this increasingly pointed beyond a classical “social-democratic” model, which is moreover experiencing a full-on decomposition in neighboring countries. On my part, I see indications of this in the fact that the massive vote totals of last May-June clearly pointed in an anti-technocratic direction, waged against the politics of “class and experts” implemented by Barre and Giscard. I also see indications in the central place accorded to questions around the rights of wage earners in the enterprises and the reduction of working hours during the electoral campaign, as crucial factors in the long-term struggle against unemployment, when in 1977-1978 they had been vitiated by artificial controversies over nationalizations, which were themselves an extension of the confused 1974 polemics over “collectivism” [collectivisme].

The question of economic policy and its social effects was for the first time clearly put in relation to the problems of the organization of work and the social “management of the labor force” (including the labor of women, youth, and immigrants), which affects the very structures of capitalist society.

As we are all aware, these phenomena are undoubtedly fragile: the defiance towards the technocratism of the “experts” can quickly fall back into the technocracy of a new power (which is not essentially different from the old one) or it can contradictorily coexist with a corporatist behavior of recipients [assistés], made up of a mix of passive waiting for decisions “from above” and solely reactive – oppositional and defensive – demands from below for the real needs that works have expected to be met for years.

As for the joint problems of unemployment and working time, besides the intrinsic difficulties and obstacles that must be overcome to make them the basis of a convergent, sustained mobilization of different popular forces, we know well that they are subject to the future developments of the economic crisis and the dramatic urgencies it might inflict. The role of the trade unions is crucial here, for better or worse. Nevertheless, potentially revolutionary tendencies have unquestionably emerged, and this has happened not outside of a “party system” that has become inoperative and reactionary, but passing through it, by favorably utilizing its contradictions.

It is now a question of seeing whether or not this objective advance of the PS will resist against the development of its internal contradictions and its place in the state apparatus. This is what makes the evolution of the PS, the comportment of its militants, its relation to the masses and the state, not only one of the keys to any further political progress, but the immediate stake of a formidable battle between classes, which began the day after May 10, and in which the popular forces need to find the means to effectively fight other than by maneuvering through the apparatuses.

But the ideological configuration is more complex, as we know. To say that the “Union of the Left” did not bring the victory of last May-June is not to say simply that this victory belonged to the PS. Before putting the party in power, the “people of the left” voted still more massively for Mitterrand. Many have emphasized the personal dimensions (not to say “Bonapartist”) of this election. It seems to me that while Mitterand’s election was coupled with the PS’s rise to power (in this, it can be formally distinguished from being a “left” variant of Gaullism), it is not effectively reducible to this equation. One might suggest that in its own way this discrepancy expresses – and I do not believe this to be too enigmatic in the current conjuncture – the contradictions of the situation I have just discussed, in describing the succession and coexistence of a defeat and victory, both equally irreversible. It constitutes (because of the conjuncture, institutional apparatus, and personal qualities of a man of state: all of these exist) the only possible recourse against the effects of division and regression caused by the crisis of political practice we are experiencing. At the same time, this discrepancy is the indirect indication of other possible forms of political practice and unity.

Effect of division and weapon against division, last recourse and first step: this ambivalence confers a different signification onto Mitterrand’s election than the mere electoral victory of a political party. To conclude, from this situation, that there is a need for a mass politics concentrated in the persona, acts, and thought of a providential figure would be abusive and dangerous: the conditions do not really exist for this to happen. One can, it seems to me, acknowledge this important political reality and connect it, without any preconceived notions, to the research for a larger base for the experience in motion. The particularity of providential figures is in effect to cloak the mystery of the solutions they find for the “contradictions within the people.” But it is precisely when solutions are not readily found, or simply do not exist due to the situation, that it is necessary to discard the mystery and give voice to ordinary individuals. Whatever one thinks of their vices and defects, this is one irreplaceable function of mass organizations (including parties).

To return to a lingering question: is the weakening of French right-wing parties explainable, as Nicos Poulantzas suggested in his final texts, through a transformation of the state apparatus that weakened the role of parties in general in the organization of hegemony, transferring to the latter a combination of technocratic administration and new means of mass communication? 6 Is the political arrangement [dispositif] stemming from the victory of May 10 affected by the same disequilibrium in turn? For me, this explanation is insufficient. In this remarkable incapacity of the state and the ruling class to “resolve their own crisis by reorganizing themselves” in a new political apparatus – as Poulantzas argued – there is moreover a time lag between the disappearance of the old instruments of power and the constitution of new instruments, which the French bourgeoisie were not yet able to master. The weakening of the French right-wing parties translates a deeper crisis of class rule. It is the result of a political history specific to French society, which the multiple social movements that have unfolded since 1968 have progressively “capitalized” on despite their internal contradictions, and has contributed in a decisive manner to “unstick” these parties and the state apparatus from the entire real terrain, to an equal extent as the effects of the economic crisis.

If these arguments are correct, it means that the right’s electoral defeat has by all accounts a historical import. It has been registered, for the moment, solely at the level of governmental control through a new set of politicians, as well as public opinion. But it interrupts the continuity of the system of government set in place by the French bourgeoisie over the past 20+ years, precisely in order to realize a technocratic “adaptation” of new international and social conditions. In these conditions, a simple, immediate reconversion of the political strategies of the ruling class, a direct utilization of the new power, analogous to that which has been produced by German social-democracy, for example, are particularly difficult. On the contrary, and even in the event that powerful forces are deployed henceforth to paper over the crack, this break in continuity introduces for the first time, in the national space, a division between the two relatively autonomous centers around which the hegemony of the ruling class is traditionally organized, each with its own proper functions and mode of intervention in the class struggle: the (national and above all multinational) capitalist employers and the state apparatus.

Without an intervening transformation of this apparatus, however small (this is why it can only be a quite provisional situation), this division can extend well beyond the permanent internal contradictions that did not prevent in the final analysis the “concerted game” of the state and capital against workers’ struggles. It opens a crack in which anti-capitalist struggles can develop, as up until now they have been put on the defensive by the conjuncture of crisis, and closed off by the state. It introduces at the same time (always provisionally…) a disaggregating factor in the “class front” of the capitalist employers, themselves traversed by deep contradictions of interest which can only be overcome through the permanent ideological and economic intervention of the state to the benefit of the most powerful among them (especially those of multinational “monopolies”). A historical break, then, that will be mark a date in the history of the French national formation, since whatever the outcome (and let us hope that it will not resemble Chile), “things will cannot go on as before.” The French bourgeoisie must now go about trying to reorganize its entire system of political and social domination, by all available means.

But more than ever, this initial break poses the question of knowing to what degree the causes for the weakness and crisis of capitalist hegemony are also factors for strengthening the popular movement. Nothing is less certain: there is no automatic correlation at work here. Yet this question needs to be urgently faced: to what extent will confrontations corresponding to transformative efforts in motion be able to develop (and doubtless the pressure from the international imperialist context will be very strong)? In this connection, everyone is aware of the extraordinarily paradoxical character of the conjuncture, of the fact that this break has not been immediately accompanied by any sort of significant development of an organized popular mobilization. 7 The paradox does not lie in the electoral form this initial rupture has taken, but rather it lies in the enormity of the gap [décalage], even if we do not overlook the signs of a popular vigilance that would be able to translate into a more direct political intervention, whether today or the day after. Neither its precise forms nor aims have clearly appeared in the present.

Whence the deep feeling of malaise visible among militants on the left, who have been on the move for years. A political break that the working class had a decisive impact upon has been accompanied by an accentuated destabilization, a decline in the organizational capacities of the workers’ movement, to which the internal difficulties of the PCF, the CGT, the CFDT, and in their respective ways, the difficulty of the PS to “manage” its contradictions as a dominant party (not to mention the breakdown of far-left [gauchistes] organizations) serve as eloquent testimony.

It seems clear, in any case, that whether it progresses or crashes up against insurmountable obstacles, the socialist experiment now in motion will also necessarily lead to a complete restructuring of the French workers’ movement, which we have sensed and interpreted in various ways for ten years, but has now become inevitable. Understanding the place these organizations have held and the historical roles they have played, their own crisis goes well beyond the effects of applying a particular “line.” This crisis will inevitably lead (which does not mean in forms and with results determined in advance) to a transformation of their grounding in the working class and other social layers, and thus the relation between parties and unions (and more broadly, between “politics” and the “economy”), and it will definitely modify the relative autonomy of social movements in relation to the workers’ movement.

The inverse hypothesis – that of a current configuration fixed in place by immediate political imperatives or by attempts at a “historic compromise” à la fraaise between popular demands and a capitalist “economic logic,” which the dissatisfaction of the grassroots would be powerless to shake – would obviously mean a rapid and disastrous failure, and would take the workers’ movement decades to recover from, and would also immediately imply the undoing of democratic politics.

3. The Crisis of the Party-Form in the Workers’ Movement

The contradictory aspects I have schematically laid out pose a fundamental question to the workers’ movement. In the texts that I have cited, Nicos Poulantzas connects its current crisis to an evolution in the structures of the state. He proposed to talk about a crisis of the party system as a system of “legitimation” and “negotiation” for governmental compromises, which depend on a politics of class rule. He showed that this role was increasingly ensured, under new forms, characteristic of the “authoritarian state,” through administration. To this evolution, Poulantzas opposed the emergence and development of new social contradictions, expressed through the various “anti-authoritarian” movements. Ultimately, he suggested that this crisis of the party system necessarily extends to the workers’ parties themselves (and thus indirectly to unions) due to the place they occupy in this system. This led him to further pose a series of questions with a clear relevance today, apropos the “perverse effects” that could follow from the mere substitution of left-wing parties for right-wing parties in their function as the “ruling party” or party in power. Whence the pressing need, for a left politics that aims for real social transformations and thus to quite simply endure, to not rest content with the seizure of state power (still less for a strategy of institutionalized dual power, doomed to failure in the conditions in France at present), but to undertake a radical transformation of the state apparatus itself, by developing forms of class struggle and mass struggle within the state.

For my part, with and following many others (developing what I see as the logic of several interventions by Louis Althusser and Bruno Trentin, most notably) I have previously talked about a crisis of the “party-form” that has now opened up in the workers’ movement. 8 It seems to me that the different “recenterings” (of an identity always in danger [en perdition]) I mentioned above are sharp manifestations of this crisis. This is also to say that the widespread awareness amongst many militants that there is a suicidal, “pathological” situation in the conjuncture we are entering perhaps contains a chance to exit from this crisis. Therein lies the positive counterpoint. But one has difficulty imagining that it will end without deep-rooted conflicts or institutional ruptures.

Is this simply a matter of words? Is it worth the trouble to revisit this question today? I believe it is.

Without returning to the origins, it is clear, at least in the French case, that the bourgeoisie did not first organize its hegemony through the form of popular parties, even mass parties, and then proceed to impose the logic of the “party system” over society as a whole. The more or less successful attempts in this direction were above all responses to the existence of mass organizations that had been anchored and grounded in the working class for over a century, indeed going beyond that class, which materialized in good as well as bad forms of class alliances (including forms of alliance between the working class and “intellectuals”).

This response from the ruling class is of course facilitated by the fact that the historical organizations of the working class and the popular classes were themselves the result of an ongoing compromise and unstable equilibrium between (militant) mass political practices tendentially opposed to the “bourgeois practice of politics”: (representative, or rather delegative and hierarchical) and the demands of their integration [insertion] into the state apparatus (from municipalities to government). From conjuncture to conjuncture, one or the other aspect won out, which translated precisely the internal contradiction of the “party-form” into the workers’ movement.

It remains the case, however, that as long as these organizations continue to crystallize around them the political practice of the majority of workers, the ruling class will thus have to continue to research the parliamentary terrain, even the terrain of mass movements, for forms that can compete with workers’ organizations. This means that the very existence of these organizations, even when they do not allow the working class to get out of a situation of domination, directly impacts the evolution of the capitalist state, and effectively contributes to the maintenance of its relatively democratic character – what I will define, following Lenin’s suggestion, not by its principles (liberty-equality) or institutional forms (representative), but through its effects: leaving room, within certain limits no doubt, for a “free development of class struggles” and social antagonisms more broadly. But of course, this effect cannot be independent from either the politics followed by workers’ organizations or, more profoundly, their capacity to transform themselves in light of the transformation of social relations and the conditions of the class struggle in contemporary capitalism.

For two tightly linked reasons, then, seem to lead us to approach current problems in terms of a crisis of the “party-form,” from the viewpoint of the workers’ movement and its history (which is not to say that this history should be isolated from the structures of capitalism and the bourgeois state). The first is that the forms of the state and bourgeois politics are historically determined, no matter what, by the existence of the organized workers’ movement and its degree of efficacy. The second is that the “party-form” itself, which has dominated this organization for nearly a century, directly reflects in its trajectory and crises the sharpest aspects of the tendential contradiction between several practices of politics, often opposed, which intersect in the class struggle and the development of social movements, whether “new” or not.

It is worth focusing more on the stakes of this crisis. What are features of the historical present we are acting in? Noticeably, that working class struggles have not lost their revolutionary function or central (this does not mean exclusive or unique) place, in the societal process of liberation from all forms of exploitation and domination. The general aspiration towards “workers’ self-management,” towards personal initiative in workplaces and collective life (or even “private life,” since this bourgeois compartmentalization is less and less tenable), which has become the sine qua non of these struggles’ success, does not necessitate that all organizational forms are to be rejected, or the resuscitation of old anarchist fantasies. The very idea of the party in the general sense, as an instrument of struggle and the constitution of a collective political will, has not lost its pertinence in an antagonistic society, where forms of exploitation and domination are not reducible to a diffuse network of “micro-powers,” but rather are organized around formidable apparatuses of the centralization of power in the economy, in social communication, and in the state. It is not a matter of abandoning the idea of “worker centrality” without consideration, but of displacing it outside of its imaginary “fortresses,” and to submit it to a radical reworking, so as to enable class organizations to once again begin analyzing the real relationship they have with class struggles and the contradictions they are caught up in.

Allow me to interrogate here first and foremost my own experience as a communist militant. If the crisis of the party-form in the workers’ movement is indeed a general crisis which marks our period [qui fait époque], in the strong sense of the term, then it affects the ensemble of the organizations of the French working class. 9 But it is concentrated within the PCF, because this latter, after having been the “strong link” for many years, has become in actuality, behind the façade of its “immutable” apparatus, a weak link of the historical organization of the French working class.

The historical decline of the PCF is only apparently a regression towards a previous stage of the French workers’ movement. “Stalinism,” even if it never reigned uncontested (not any more than its “social-democratic” or “libertarian” counterparts) was never artificially laid or dumped on the workers’ movement. It represented – in France and elsewhere – an organic form and expressed deep-seated contradictions. Since then, the crisis of Stalinism and post-Stalinism (which now appears here as “Eurocommunism”) cannot be regulated by substituting one line for another, or one ideology for another, even one apparatus for another.

The phenomenon of “bureaucratization,” or rather, the technocratization of the communist party’s functioning, which has accelerated over the past few years, is something qualitatively new. The rising influence of economic, military, publicity, diplomatic, etc. “experts” and their “worldview” [conception du monde] in the elaboration of the party’s political discourse has produced a growing intellectual and material gap between two categories of “communists”: the ordinary “members” [adherents], recruited on a corporative basis, which correlates more or less to the conjuncture, to the slogans, and the extent of the means deployed; and “militants” proper, who only make up a tiny kernel. The accelerated renovation of the party base, previously considered to be a bad thing that must be combated in order to retain “experienced militants,” has hence become the rule and is now semi-official policy. 10

As this trajectory is in direct contradiction with what is called for in a situation of crisis, and with the need for initiatives that would orient the men and women of the PCF, it’s not too surprising that it has led in practice to the growing ineffectiveness of the “machine.”

We could doubtless observe this trajectory in nuce in the practices of the Stalinist period. They already ensured absolute power of the apparatus to the leading group, and above all they allowed this group to regulate by itself, without any mass debate or “legitimation crisis,” the conflicts elicited by the difficult adaptation to completely new international and national realities. These practices led to a structural incapacity to innovate, to invent responses to the history of the contradictions of socialism and capitalism. But the result of the process of technocratization has been the now near-total break in the party between social categories, especially between “workers” and “intellectuals,” themselves subdivided into distinct groups, and in the very image of the bourgeois society framed by the state apparatus. The social division of labor and the geographical and socio-professional partitions are fully reproduced within the party, even in the composition of cells and sections. This in return strengthens the leadership’s technocratism: it manages the party’s internal forms of corporatism just as the state tries to manage those of society (by borrowing all the means it can, even its personnel).

The “fusion” or organic alliance between workers and intellectuals in a joint political practice, which is in itself a revolutionary tendency (before any “seizure of power,” a fortiori after) has always been a problem. It does not follow “spontaneously” from the development of social contradictions. The least one can say is that it is not facilitated by Stalinist practices. The problem involves knowing why, despite the will of numerous militants, this tendential fusion has retreated in the post-Stalinist period.

Certain explanatory elements are clear, and they have been pointed out on several occasions. Thus the counterblows of the degeneration of the revolutionary regimes coming out of the October Revolution and the development of class struggle in the East, which not only undermined “proletarian internationalism” of the communist parties but returned the imaginary of socialism to its opposite. And so the emergence of “new political subjects”– primarily the feminist movement and the movement of immigrant workers – or qualitatively new forms of social antagonism (even if they are the product of a longer history) practically inseparable from the class struggle, but irreducible to its traditional traditions; forms of integration or rather control of workers’ demands within the “social relations” of the enterprise, developed by post-Taylorist capitalism, which tend to narrowly limit the trade union to a representative, delegative, or mediating role in wage conflicts, and indirectly, the party is confined to that of a pressure and interest group within the union apparatus; 11 and new technological forms of mass communication and political propaganda, destined to short-circuit militant practice.

But we have not explained, it seems, the communist party’s incapacity to confront these problems if we do not see that they fundamentally spring up from another, more hidden, process: the progressive disappearance of the entire mass “educative” or “cultural” function of the party. For several decades, the party and its surrounding organizational network fulfilled this function, for better or worse, which quite simply made it possible to provide the working class with a political language, or at least a part of the working class (and also the peasantry and the most exploited workers), even if this language appeared as “stereotypical” and attracted the interested contempt of the “political class” and cultural professionals, whose monopoly it threatened. The party-form thus acted as a complement to the fundamental process of capitalist education (from which it sometimes directly borrowed models) and in contradiction with it, since it largely concerned those excluded, turned away, or beaten by the education process, and it closely combined what bourgeois education aimed to radically separate (in the case of the great popular masses): collective political activity and individual ideological “formation.” 12

We thus arrive at a fundamental paradox: in an important and not merely formal sense, the communist party of the Stalinist period was more democratic, due to its social function (far from constituting a “counter-society,” as Anne Kriegel would have us believe) than the “Eurocommunist” party of the 22nd Congress (that is, the post-Stalinist party in fact). It is effectively characterized by an internal historical contradiction that has gradually disappeared from the current party (and has imposed veritable schizophrenic forms on the consciousness of its militants – bearable only if one takes a leap into fideism): the acute contradiction between the complete absence of democracy in the functioning of the party apparatus (going all the way up to “terrorist” practices) and the objectively and powerfully democratic function the party takes on in class society. The current technocratization, as cause or effect, is both the relative attenuation of the former aspect (since the party aligns itself with the norms of the organizations of bourgeois society, neither more nor less authoritarian than the enterprise or administration) and the nearly total disappearance of the latter. To pose the question of a new political practice is, therefore, to also gradually reintroduce the whole question of workers’ culture and its public expression in society today, starting from the needs articulated by workers themselves.

4. The “Fourth Way?”

Without doubt, the different aspects of the crisis of French communism only concern a part of the democratic and workers’ movement. I nonetheless sense that one can find their equivalents in other organizations, and above all behoove us to examine the problem in all its radical scope. At stake is measuring the magnitude of the questions that should be met with a practical response so that the erosion [recul] of bourgeois domination can be set, now or later, in a longer process.

For many years, the most visible negative aspect of the practice of left-wing parties in their relationships with the masses and mass movements has been the systematic practice of encadrement. 13 This has led not to the reactivation of the masses’ consciousness or political intervention, but to their relative paralysis, to that paradox of a “passive movement” which either regularly failed to meet its goals or became bogged down and split before achieving lasting positions. We might remember in this connection not only May ’68 or the flash in the pan of the 1977 municipal elections, but above all the role the political general staff played in the period of the Common Program. I recalled above, against certain self-serving simplifications that current have traction, the positive role this joint perspective played: it was a moment when tens of thousands of militants were invested in an effort of daily communication with workers of all types like never before. However, the PS leadership never considered labor strikes as a crucial component of a social movement. And for its part the PCF leadership ceaselessly passed from one extreme to the other: sometimes it systematically impeded their development to preserve the fragile equilibrium of the Union of the Left (a “single solution, the Common Program”), other times it took up in its own fashion methods that it had previously denounced as “leftist” [gauchistes], by utilizing strikes as a means of political pressure and intervention in the trade union field (“We live in the era of revolutions,” “Make the rich pay,” etc.).

Is it simply wishful thinking to state this? At present, there are many militants from different organizations who do not want to see a repetition of these problems in the current period; they are weighing the stakes, the effects of these opportunist practices, and this instrumental conception of mass movements. For many, what is important today is to act against that which divides the masses, either through the reproduction of corporatisms or the introduction of new ideological sectarianisms (including those under the mask of “anti-totalitarianism,” dignified during Stalinism, from which it imitates methods of intimidation and ideological blackmail…). For these practices are in open contradiction with what a transition to socialism requires, both in order to effectively undertake such a transition (which is far from being the case) and to effectively change social relations, from the enterprise to administration to the conditions of life. They consequently run up against the urgent aspirations of an even greater number of workers and citizens, for even if they are not (or no longer) organized, they are far from “depoliticized.”

This “border” zone between the inside and outside of organizations is crucial, wherever militants find themselves in contact with social movements, and are forced to confront the contradictions head-on without the protective screen of a “line” or official function, and are thus forced to question their own place. If the workers’ movement needs to change “form,” this will only happen through the combined action of organized militants and the mass of unorganized workers and intellectuals they are in contact with, in a process of communication that unfolds both “internally” and “externally,” and which blurs these divisions. It is not far-fetched to think that this exigency was a factor in the united currents that ultimately brought about the political change of May 10. Militants from the PS, the CGT, the PCF, the CFDT, from the political or cultural “far left” were openly engaged. The need for the autonomy of mass movements, distinct from any sort of “apoliticism” or “reformism,” and notably called for by the feminist movement, was widely acknowledged. This need also goes for trade unionism, as we know, above all at the moment when the first measures towards the reorganization of the working-week and nationalizations pose anew and in an unavoidable manner the problem of workers’ direct involvement in the management of enterprises, in the form of “factory councils” or something else.

In this way, the divisions within the workers’ movement have taken on a new figure. It is less possible than ever before to reconstitute a “party of the working class” in the form of a single, or merely ruling, party. We must start again on the basis of an irreversible pluralism, and look to move past paroxysmal – and today, caricatured – forms that have led up to this critical moment wherein every mass workers’ organization is in upheaval, and replace them in the face of the unresolvable alternative of passivity or ephemeral revolt. No matter its concrete shape, the outcome of the crisis of the party-form depends on the simultaneous transformation of all the organizations of the workers’ movement (none of which have every been purely composed of workers).

The perspective thus sketched is thus not that of a “third way” between Stalinism and social-democracy, which would only risk combining their common heritage. It is, rather, that of a “fourth way,” overcoming and correcting both ideologies of “power” (and “dual power”) that have been implanted in the political tradition of the French left: the “centralizing” position, social and communist (unfairly baptized as “Jacobin”) and the “libertarian” tradition, resurgent today as the self-management [autogestionnaire] ideology of the primacy of the “new social movements” (in which we too often indistinctly arrange, and on the same level, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the regionalist movement, even the peace movement, which only facilitates the vast operation towards their “recuperation” by neoliberalism…). In mirroring ways, both traditions are perfectly incapable of analyzing, in real terms and in light of experience, the problem that is now on the agenda: that of a mass democratic politics, the coördination of popular initiatives, collectively-led concrete analyses, programs of action to be debated, simultaneously on the terrain of enterprises and relations of work, the terrain of culture and modes of life, and the terrain of institutions.

In short, what must be theoretically questioned – as has already happened in practice through the apparently “negative” experience of the past 15 years – is the dualist and mechanical logic that renders the state and society as two distinct spheres, to the point of subsequently explaining that one is “determinant” or represents the “truth” of the other.

If the problem of state power is insurmountable (in this sense, an absolutely “anti-state” reality does not exist), then an adequate expression of broader social contradictions within the state, “without remainder” [sans reste], no longer exists. Politics and the class struggle possess an essential impurity. The workers’ movement, by definition, is caught right in the middle of this contradiction.

From this point forward, the illusion of a socialism that is always “potentially” given in the economic, technological, or cultural changes of current society must be discarded; we can attack it from below and from above through the contradictions of socialism to be constructed, of which there only exist certain premises, and which will necessarily confront certain “tendencies” and “needs” of present society. A socialism that consequently requires, in a relatively unforeseeable manner, the very forces tending towards it to transform themselves along the way, in a long-term process.

To be frank: the question of socialism has suddenly appeared openly, “on the order of the day,” despite the predictable resistances and difficulties, and in a manner very few could have anticipated a few months ago. Is this not paradoxical, since such a transformation has already started, in the form of crisis and acute antagonisms? The immediate future will show us what this transformation really is, on the condition that we do not remain mere spectators.

– Translated by Patrick King

This text was first published as “Après l’autre Mai,” in La Gauche, le pouvoir, le socialisme: Hommage à Nicos Poulantzas, ed. Christine Buci-Glucksmann (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981), 99-119.


This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”

References   [ + ]

1. For a recent historical study of the decline of the PCF in this period, see Julian Mischi, Le Communisme désarmé: Le PCF et les classes populaires depuis les années 1970 (Paris: Agone, 2012).
2. In Ouvrons la fenêtre, camarades! (Paris: Maspero, 1979), Guy Bois, Georges Labica, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, and myself tried to show what this deceptive, intra-party [politicienne] issue involved, and to analyse the process as a whole.
3. Two increasingly distant tendencies coexist in this electorate, as is the case with many other levels of the apparatus: the “unity” tendency, the “workerist” tendency, with both being hostile towards “social-democracy.” The current decline of the party is a long-term process, which has just crossed over to an irreversible stage. It would be wrong to believe, however, that this decline will rapidly continue, beyond an incompressible threshold of social representation, and a fortiori that it will give rise to a phenomena of “connected vessels” among the left. The transfers are much more unpredictable; they can swing from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other, according to the circumstances: take notice!
4. I refer here to the book by Gérard Noiriel (in collaboration with Benaceur Azzaoui), Vivre et lutter à Longwy (Paris: Maspero, 1980), and two remarkable films: Le dos au mur, directed by Jean-Pierre Thorn, and Lorraine Coeur d’Acier, une radio dans la ville, directed by Jean Serres and Alban Poirier. Both films are passionate testimonies to the difficulties of workers’ struggles, and have still not succeeded in breaking the barriers [barrages] of public or private distribution.
5. It will be crucial to see whether, in support of a politics of decentralization, the PS concentrates on colonizing local assemblies, or if it succeeds in reactivating the workers’ self-management movement, by jostling its own municipal managers if necessary, especially through the stated application of fully proportional representation [proportionnelle intégrale] and the formation of neighborhood committees.
6. Cf. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: New Left Books, 1979); and “La crise des partis,” Le Monde diplomatique, September 1979. Translator’s Note: See also the interview found in the current dossier, “The State, Social Movements, Party.”
7. Active mass movements with revolutionary content have formed across Europe over the last few months, and in political contexts that have been relatively “blocked”: in Holland, in Germany, and England, then in Italy (around the peace movement), not to mention Solidarity in Poland.
8. Louis Althusser, “On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party” trans. Ben Brewster, New Left Review I/104 (1977): 3-22; “What Must Change in the Party,” trans. Patrick Camiller, New Left Review I/109 (May-June 1978): 19-45; “The Crisis of Marxism,” trans. Grahame Lock, Marxism Today (July 1978), 215-220, 227; Bruno Trentin, Da sfruttati a produttori (Bari: De Donato, 1977; Il sindicato dei Consigli (Rome, Editori Riunuti, 1980).
9. Etienne Balibar, “Etat, parti, transition,” Dialectiques 27 (1979); “Etat, parti, idéologie: esquisse d’un problème,” in Etienne Balibar, André Tosel, and Cesare Luporini, Marx et sa critique de la politique (Paris: Maspero, 1979); “PCF: de Charonne à Vitry,” Le Nouvel Observateur, No. 852, March 9, 1981; “Sur le droit de tendances,” Politique aujourd’hui, no. 1-2 (1982). Translator’s Note: “State, Party, Transition” and a version of “On the Right to Tendencies” have been translated for the current dossier.
10. It is incorrect to say that there has been no adaptation. Since 1968 especially, the party leadership has programmatically strived to “modernize” its language and organization (partially adopting, in its own way, the program of the “Eurocommunists” eliminated avant la lettre at the end of the 1950s). Whence this paradox: many cadres and militants, particularly intellectuals, could experience the 1960s and 70s as a period of “opening” and “renovation” of the party, culminating in the 22nd Congress; whereas this period is at the same time even primarily the moment when the party became increasingly technocratic, and had “missed encounters” with certain historically crucial societal issues: immigration, women’s liberation, youth movements, and the new status of intellectual labor. After 1978, this “realism” of the apparatus revealed its limits.
11. Cf. Nicolas Dubost, Flins sans fin (Paris: Maspero, 1979); Dialectiques no. 28 (special issue on syndicalism); Jean-Louis Moynot, Au milieu du gué: CGI, syndicalisme et démocratie de masse (Paris: PUF, 1982).
12. Among the recent testimonies that clearly point to the importance of this educational activity, one that stands out is Gérard Belloin, Nos rêves camarades: infi(r)me(s) mémoiré(s) (Paris: Seuil, 1979). A comparative historical analysis of education [scolarisation] and political practice, not as figures of “distinction” (Bourdieu) but as the constitution and crisis of mass ideological apparatuses (and thus of the state), remains entirely to be developed.
13. Translator’s Note: This is a term that is difficult to render in English, since it refers to a set of practices rather than a single concept. A flat-footed way of putting it might be “organizational and ideological training,” or “cadre-formation,” the ensemble of political activities the PCF used as a Leninist party to form and develop militants. Encadrement was especially important in the PCF’s trade union work, as the CGT was the party’s major mobilizational tool and a strong core of rank-and-file communists were needed there for purposes of agitation, education, and the broad implementation of the political line of the party among the union membership. The literal translation, “framing,” does capture some of the ideological and discursive elements at play here (especially if we take into account Robert Benford and David Snow’s use of “framing processes” in the study of social movements), but it leaves something to be desired in that encadrement required a material process of political socialization. Balibar is criticizing the “transmission belt” model of the relation between the party and mass organizations, inherent in encadrement: institutions like trade unions were thus reduced in practice to one-way conveyor belts, configured solely for relaying the Party line down to the masses. This conception prevented mass organizations from becoming genuine forms of popular power with their own dynamic and independence. My thanks to George Ross for the historically-informed insights on this term.

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.