May ’68 and the Crisis of Marxism (1978)

Megan Craig, Near-Sight­ed, 2015, oil on pan­el.

Ten years. And Marx­ism, which appeared to be the crit­i­cal weapon of the May move­ment in France, with all of its lib­er­tar­i­an, Maoist, Gue­varist, Trot­sky­ist, or Althusser­ian-the­o­ret­i­cal vari­ants – anti-impe­ri­al­ist on all accounts – has entered the dock­et of the accused, a sin­gu­lar dis­place­ment of the polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal con­junc­ture. In the same moment when cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties are expe­ri­enc­ing their deep­est cri­sis since the 1930s, and even acknowl­edg­ing the fact; when the assort­ed experts of the Tri­lat­er­al Com­mis­sion swear that West­ern democ­ra­cies have become “ungovern­able” due to a latent cri­sis of the clas­si­cal instru­ments of hege­mo­ny, might Marx­ism itself be caught up in this great col­lapse?1 Could we see the return of a lib­er­al or neolib­er­al cul­ture, which would play soci­ety against the state and devel­op an ambigu­ous anti-sta­tism to bet­ter open up the field for multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, eager to over­come the bar­ri­ers of nation-states and French Jacobin­ism?

Is this an open cri­sis of Marx­ism, and an end to all of our myths? Sure­ly. Decreed by some who are always ready to point out anoth­er opi­um of the peo­ple and the source of all our gulags, inter­nal­ized by oth­ers dur­ing an unprece­dent­ed polit­i­cal cri­sis dis­closed by the his­toric fail­ure of the French left, and most recent­ly declared by Marx­ists in a provoca­tive and self-crit­i­cal man­ner (I have Althuss­er in mind, but also Rossana Rossan­da, Lucio Col­let­ti, or Per­ry Ander­son), this cri­sis of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas and prac­tices seems to affect Marx­ist the­o­ry itself. Do “Lenin­ism” and even “Marx­ism” con­demn us to a kind of crit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal impo­tence as con­cerns the trans­for­ma­tion of West­ern soci­eties?

Not to speak for oth­ers. If it is real­ly true, as a neolib­er­al­ism with a left-pop­ulist bent pro­claims, that the Stal­in­ism of “actu­al­ly exist­ing social­ism” is the real­iza­tion of Lenin­ism, which is noth­ing more than Marx’s “total­i­tar­i­an­ism,” pro­grammed by the Jacobin cul­ture of the Enlight­en­ment, the same vic­tim, no doubt, of the total­i­tar­i­an seeds in Pla­ton­ism and West­ern meta­physics. Phew!

And it is on this pre­cise point – in this ter­ror­is­tic ver­ti­go of a meta­physics of ori­gins which curi­ous­ly recalls anti-Jacobin, post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary French ide­ol­o­gy of the 19th cen­tu­ry, from Ben­jamin Con­stant to Guizot, all those cri­tiques of “democ­ra­cy against lib­er­ty” because total­i­tar­i­an – that a doubt aris­es.2 What if this cri­sis of Marx­ism was in the first instance only a cri­sis of a cer­tain neo-Stal­in­ist or reformist Marx­ism, which nev­er ulti­mate­ly dies and is always reborn in all the bureau­crat­ic per­ver­sions of polit­i­cal prac­tices? And what if, as I think is the case, this dra­mat­ic cri­sis of the modes of analy­sis and polit­i­cal prac­tices and strate­gies of the work­ers’ move­ment, so evi­dent in the present con­tra­dic­tions of a fal­ter­ing Euro­com­mu­nism, in the “iden­ti­ty cri­sis” of the major Euro­pean com­mu­nist par­ties, in the his­toric fail­ure of the left, caus­es the lacu­nas, the lim­its of Marx him­self appear?

As for the state, ide­ol­o­gy, the struc­tures and work­ings of polit­i­cal prac­tices, there is the analy­sis born in 1968: mol­e­c­u­lar forms of pow­er (in the fam­i­ly, the school, the cou­ple, pris­ons), the vast field of norms and social con­trol, that can­not be flat­tened into state pow­er, or even less reduced to clas­si­cal forms of exploita­tion only. And what if – this is my final point – this crit­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion, this anti-dog­ma­tism of cri­sis, far from ren­der­ing us sober in whichev­er fash­ion­able pes­simism, was our chance? So that a sin­gle notion could be drawn from pol­i­tics, which is not about the state or dom­i­na­tion, but a the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny, as Gram­sci intu­it­ed?

We see here a mature cri­sis, a les­son in his­tor­i­cal real­ism, a lib­er­a­tion. Assured­ly, the end of all our philo­soph­i­cal and above all politi­co-sta­tist aims, ever dog­mat­ic and too closed off from Marx­ist the­o­ry to be able to encom­pass, uni­fy, and mas­ter the ensem­ble of the his­tor­i­cal process run­ning from cap­i­tal­ism to social­ism, boiled down to a mere vol­un­tarist con­fronta­tion of class­es. In short, the rela­tions of Marx­ist the­o­ry to social­ism and rev­o­lu­tion were viti­at­ed, per­vert­ed, and Marx­ist the­o­ry was not able to escape clean and unscathed. One more rea­son to tack­le this seri­ous ques­tion, posed in ‘68 and left unre­solved: “What is to be Done,” yes, with Marx­ism, even beyond Marx­ism, and why not tend against Marx­ism for an in-depth analy­sis of our soci­ety? And thus to get out of all the impass­es the work­ers’ move­ment has bequeathed us: to think the rev­o­lu­tion on the mod­el of a frontal seizure of pow­er (the 1917 type) or to “occu­py the state” through a par­lia­men­tary road from above, between par­ty lead­er­ships, accord­ing to the lega­cy of Bern­stein and Kaut­sky that the Union of Left could not – or did not want – to over­come.

We can under­stand why the year 1968 trig­gered a cri­sis and inter­ro­ga­tion of Marx­ism, of a Marx­ism inca­pable of “chang­ing the world, from France to Prague, after the fact, for polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. The cri­sis of Stal­in­ism and lat­er that of “de-Stal­in­iza­tion,” trag­i­cal­ly sti­fled in Prague, and the fail­ure of a demo­c­ra­t­ic road to social­ism in Chile, Por­tu­gal, and France, sanc­tioned some­thing at work in the May move­ment: in its the­o­ries and pol­i­tics, in its strate­gic block­age.

In truth, in May ’68 Marx­ism was not a kind of body of the­o­ry, con­sti­tut­ed at an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal lev­el. Even if the return to sources (Marx after the break, Lenin…), to rig­or, to the sci­ence of his­to­ry against the ide­ol­o­giza­tion of Marx­ism and soft human­isms had indeed been the nov­el­ty of Althusser’s think­ing in the years from 1965-68. This was a peri­od when we nev­er stopped Read­ing3 and re-read­ing Cap­i­tal, and believed that we could escape Stal­in­ism and its lib­er­al-human­ist, “right-wing” cri­tique sole­ly by virtue of “The­o­ry” and its re-appro­pri­a­tion of the great Marx­ist texts. Rest assured, this the­o­ret­i­cal dimen­sion was not lack­ing dur­ing May. But it was unde­ni­ably less deci­sive, in rela­tion to both the stu­dent and the work­ers’ move­ment.

In fact, the Marx­ism of May, filled with all types of Third World­ist or insur­rec­tion­al fas­ci­na­tions, oper­at­ed oth­er­wise and else­where. A large-scale, often con­tra­dic­to­ry, project of cri­tique, whose over­all [glob­al] dimen­sion was not always artic­u­lat­ed – a col­lec­tive prax­is of rup­ture. A cri­tique of knowl­edge, the bour­geois uni­ver­si­ty, pow­ers, hier­ar­chies, rela­tion­ships between lead­ers-led, polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and state repres­sion; repeat­ed attempts to con­nect Marx and Freud, desire and rev­o­lu­tion, phan­tasm of a col­lec­tive imag­i­nary and speech that had become his­tor­i­cal­ly active: this was the Marx­ism of May. On the hori­zon, the great anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles of the Viet­namese peo­ple, the Cuban peo­ple (“Che”), and the mass move­ments of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion in Chi­na and in Europe – stu­dent protests.

With ten years hav­ing passed, this Marx­ism that is too reliant on Third World­ist mod­els, repeat­ing the insur­rec­tion­al myths of the strike or dual pow­er, claim­ing the Gaullist state to be “vacant” and open to a frontal assault, has proved to be some­what out of touch with the force of the anti-insti­tu­tion­al, anti-author­i­tar­i­an mass move­ment, which raised much more com­plex prob­lems. The con­fu­sion of a cri­sis of hege­mo­ny (in the Gram­s­cian sense of a cri­sis of author­i­ty, insti­tu­tions, polit­i­cal rela­tions, the “inte­gral” state) for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis (in the clas­si­cal Lenin­ist sense) only led to a strate­gic impasse. What­ev­er might have been said, pow­er was not “for the tak­ing.” What’s more, all the evi­dence since gath­ered has shown that despite some ten­u­ous moments, the forces of order nev­er entire­ly lost con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion, and the bour­geoisie was well-posi­tioned to defend itself by all avail­able means. The Gaullist counter-offen­sive at the end of May, the thin­ly-veiled call for civ­il war, speaks vol­umes about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Ver­sailles-like mas­sacre.

But how then to explain and acknowl­edge the stu­dent movement’s place in this bifur­cat­ed Marx­ism, extreme­ly lib­er­tar­i­an but strate­gi­cal­ly ortho­dox, entire­ly enmeshed in an instru­men­tal [frontal] under­stand­ing of pow­er and the state?

While it called for oth­er polit­i­cal prac­tices, anoth­er the­o­ry of pol­i­tics goes beyond the sole hori­zon – more than prob­lem­at­ic – of the seizure of state pow­er.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis (in the Lenin­ist sense) with a cri­sis of hege­mo­ny (in the Gram­s­cian sense) pro­vides clar­i­ty on the prob­a­ble ori­gins in France of the lat­er cri­sis of Marx­ism. The dis­cov­ery of the glob­al char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal­ist oppres­sion was expressed in new forms of his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness that have con­tin­ued to have effects in soci­ety for the past ten years, even if the devel­op­ment of the cri­sis since 1975 has gen­er­at­ed more neb­u­lous, and doubt­less more des­per­ate, forms. Hence­forth, a social sys­tem like the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem no longer depends on the social-eco­nom­ic exploita­tion priv­i­leged by Marx, but indeed on the ensem­ble of insti­tu­tions, ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es, and inter-indi­vid­ual rela­tions that main­tain the exis­tence of this sys­tem and repro­duce it in a con­tra­dic­to­ry fash­ion – and can­not be resolved through the Marx­ist prob­lem­at­ic of the “super­struc­ture,” “con­scious­ness” (which either fol­lows or does not fol­low), or even ide­ol­o­gy. Bet­ter, any econ­o­mistic, quan­ti­ta­tive approach to the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and exploita­tion has been put into ques­tion by the cri­tique, from a per­spec­tive of work­ers’ self-man­age­ment, of hier­ar­chi­cal forms of pow­er, social con­trol, and the inter­nal oper­a­tion of fac­to­ries them­selves.

Does not such a cri­sis of hege­mo­ny lead to a cri­tique of pol­i­tics as it is struc­tured in the “bour­geois pub­lic sphere?” But as Jür­gen Haber­mas has shown, the con­sti­tu­tion of pub­lic space depends pre­cise­ly on a sep­a­ra­tion between the “pub­lic sphere” (reduced, in the 17th cen­tu­ry, to the state) and the field of the pri­vate, in its dou­ble deter­mi­na­tion: the pri­vate domain of civ­il soci­ety (eco­nom­ic exchange and pro­duc­tion and the fam­i­ly, that restrict­ed domain of bour­geois and pet­ty-bour­geois inte­ri­or­i­ty, extend­ed to the work­ing class in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tu­ry.4

In fact, this reduc­tion of the polit­i­cal to the state is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion as such, and its ide­ol­o­gy. It is in this sense we can inter­pret Engels’s affir­ma­tion: “The state presents itself to us as the first ide­o­log­i­cal pow­er over man.”5

The appear­ance of this sep­a­rat­ed state, which the young Marx crit­i­cized as the “state of sep­a­ra­tion” is inscribed in a whole series of new oppo­si­tions: the social and the polit­i­cal, the social and the eco­nom­ic, the social and the pri­vate. Cer­tain­ly, the devel­op­ment of Key­ne­sian state prac­tices (the wel­fare state) placed this sep­a­ra­tion of the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal into ques­tion – which was nev­er total, even in the strict­ly lib­er­al frame­work. But far from destroy­ing the fetishism of the state, Key­ne­sian­ism has seemed to rein­force the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of pol­i­tics with the state. And doubt­less, one should fol­low the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment, fem­i­nism – that true lega­cy of May – in order to under­stand that this auton­o­miza­tion of the polit­i­cal, its reduc­tion to the state, to par­ties, has his­tor­i­cal­ly func­tioned, and still func­tions, towards the exclu­sion of women, their rel­e­ga­tion to the “pri­vate.” By dis­cov­er­ing that the “per­son­al is polit­i­cal,” the fem­i­nist move­ment engages, in prac­tice, in a cri­tique of a “nar­row” con­cept of pol­i­tics, reducible sole­ly to the state and pris­on­er to the bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy of pol­i­tics and its “rep­re­sen­ta­tive-par­lia­men­tary” field.

If, as Althuss­er argues in his inter­view with Il Man­i­festo, Marx was “par­a­lyzed by the bour­geois rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the state, pol­i­tics, etc., to the point of repeat­ing it in a sole­ly neg­a­tive form (cri­tique of its juridi­cal char­ac­ter), if the analy­sis of the state con­tin­ues to be more neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive (pri­ma­cy of the cri­tique of the state-class dom­i­na­tion), if this region of the polit­i­cal remains a “blind spot,” a “for­bid­den zone,” is this not because of anoth­er blind spot, which Althuss­er does not real­ly elu­ci­date?6 That is, there is an intrin­sic weak­ness of Marx­ist analy­sis, a prac­ti­cal as well as the­o­ret­i­cal lag, con­cern­ing the lib­er­a­tion of women. Can we actu­al­ly per­form a cri­tique of pol­i­tics with­out under­tak­ing a fem­i­nist cri­tique of pol­i­tics? I high­ly doubt it…The links that con­nect the state to the geneal­o­gy of famil­ial­ism, the still-less explored rela­tion­ships between the estab­lish­ment of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive regime and the nor­mal­iza­tion of intra-famil­ial rela­tions (includ­ing, and above all, in the work­ing class) leaves us to think how the state func­tions “in the fam­i­ly,” but with­out for­get­ting about this oth­er fact: every form of class dom­i­na­tion is accom­pa­nied by male “dom­i­na­tion.”7

This is all to say that the “cri­sis of Marx­ism,” in its clas­si­cal or insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion ver­sions, is tied to the exis­tence of these two major prob­lems raised in May. A the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem: how to think the rela­tions between state pow­er and pow­ers, between eco­nom­ic exploita­tion and oth­ers forms of sex­u­al sub­ju­ga­tion, bureau­crat­ic hierarchies…A prac­ti­cal prob­lem: the rep­re­sen­ta­tive dimen­sion of pol­i­tics in no way cov­ers the politi­ciza­tion of the social and its effects: reaf­fir­ma­tion of a polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, irre­ducible to canon­i­cal state­ments about a bour­geois indi­vid­u­al­i­ty in cri­sis or to some Marx­ist analy­ses, even those that devel­op a “the­o­ry of per­son­al­i­ty,” which does not “dream” and proves to be uncon­cerned with sex­u­al dif­fer­ence.8 But why should such a the­o­ry dream, since it is “devel­oped,” con­tent, and reaf­firms the guar­an­tees of a sci­en­tif­ic human­ism repaint­ed accord­ing to the tastes of the day, while bad­ly hid­ing its own “moral­i­ty,” as Niet­zsche would say…

In con­fronting these two prob­lems, the far-left (at least its ortho­dox, Lenin­ist ver­sion), such as the insti­tu­tion­al Marx­ism of the PCF, has found itself to be non-hege­mon­ic. For it has not worked out, in a com­mu­nist form, the “the­o­ry-ide­ol­o­gy” of state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism and its human­ist com­ple­ment, as a hin­drance on the in-depth analy­sis of French civ­il soci­ety.

This is why the Marx­ism of May ’68 was not only a “prax­is of rup­ture” engag­ing all fronts of strug­gle. It was, in the first instance, an explod­ed, frac­tured Marx­ism, par­a­lyzed by that enor­mous polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tion of May; the impos­si­ble encounter between class­es and poten­tial­ly allied social stra­ta, the ver­ti­cal and sec­tar­i­an com­part­men­tal­iza­tion of strug­gles which could have and should have been uni­fied: the stu­dents, the uni­ver­si­ty youth, and the work­ing class, the work­ers.

From this per­spec­tive, the spe­cif­ic “respon­si­bil­i­ty” of polit­i­cal par­ties in the strate­gic block­age of May can­not be elud­ed. Such a block­age aligns with the fail­ure of a union of the left inca­pable of estab­lish­ing a real dialec­tic between “con­tract” (uni­ty of par­ties) and “com­bat” (mass uni­ty from below) – and thus fun­da­men­tal­ly inca­pable of draw­ing the lessons of May.

The stu­dent explo­sion – high school, intel­lec­tu­al (in the broad sense) stu­dents – was imme­di­ate­ly the first major sur­prise of May. Yet, in the light of the mass anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ment that tra­versed near­ly all the “hege­mon­ic appa­ra­tus­es” (uni­ver­si­ty, school fam­i­ly, media, hos­pi­tals, asy­lums), a move­ment that con­tained every­thing, from utopia and its “work­ers’ self-man­age­ment” aspi­ra­tions to new forms of democ­ra­cy and pol­i­tics (prac­tices of assem­bly and speak­ing, the rejec­tion of del­e­gates), the com­mu­nist par­ty imme­di­ate­ly holed up in its “fortress.” It acknowl­edged the “legit­i­mate” aspi­ra­tions (and the oth­ers?) of the stu­dents, denounced repres­sion, even while min­i­miz­ing the movement’s begin­nings to the activ­i­ty of “sev­er­al grou­pus­cules,” ren­der­ing them guilty through the strait­jack­et of a trun­cat­ed Lenin­ism, wield­ed against “pet­ty-bour­geois ultra-left­ism” for a good cause: the par­ty for­bade any rela­tion­ship between cul­ture and pol­i­tics, and thus any kind of hege­mo­ny – a move­ment that every­where escaped it and unfor­tu­nate­ly came to it from “out­side”…

Sev­er­al con­se­quences fol­lowed that would have a sin­gu­lar impact on the PCF’s whole demo­c­ra­t­ic strat­e­gy. An inabil­i­ty, in press­ing con­di­tions, to con­front the need for new forms of democ­ra­cy from below; and an inabil­i­ty to dis­cern and ana­lyze new fronts of strug­gle. Two short­com­ings that, in the absence of any sort of self-crit­i­cism, would result in the same errors, the same fear in the face of the new and the strug­gles emerg­ing from ’68: from work­ers’ self-man­age­ment strug­gles like Lip, to fem­i­nist and envi­ron­men­tal strug­gles…

There remain rea­sons for this posi­tion. If pow­er is not first in the streets, it’s because pow­er is pri­mar­i­ly in the bal­lot box­es, as though one could pro­ceed with­out the oth­er. But since May ’68, the pri­or­i­ty of a pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment with com­mu­nist par­tic­i­pa­tion, the reduc­tion of the move­ment to this sole aim, has been affirmed. Of course, the Fed­er­a­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Social­ist Left, its sta­tus as a third force on the cen­ter-left and pres­i­den­tial strat­e­gy suf­fer­ing (the meet­ing at Charlety Sta­di­um, the Pierre Mendès France gov­ern­ment), want­ed to hear noth­ing of it9. But in attach­ing this polit­i­cal approach to a move­ment in which just as many intel­lec­tu­al-mid­dle class ele­ments as work­ers have sought to look past the par­lia­men­tary frame­work, is not the PCF con­demn­ing itself to lose all real hege­mo­ny in the strug­gle and with­in the move­ment?

For did not the choice of such ter­rain, pre­cise­ly that of the “man­age­ment” of the Com­mon Pro­gram, exclude from the start any kind of actu­al fusion between new forms of democ­ra­cy and the par­lia­men­tary out­come? It thus tend­ed to uphold and con­sol­i­date the divi­sion of labor between trade unions (the Grenelle Agree­ments) and polit­i­cal par­ties, in seek­ing to reach a pro­gram­mat­ic agree­ment from above, between par­ty lead­er­ships. A divi­sion that would be repro­duced start­ing in 1972, and would prove to halt the build­ing of a “pop­u­lar union” that would be nei­ther reformist nor sec­tar­i­an, capa­ble of mak­ing the Com­mon Pro­gram a dynam­ic coali­tion, in which the mass­es could have their say, includ­ing crit­i­cism.

Beyond the cri­sis of strate­gies in both ’68 and ’78, there are spe­cif­ic the­o­ret­i­cal rea­sons for the PCF’s posi­tion, which con­cern the absence of the cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny of Marx­ism in the French work­ers’ move­ment. Graft­ed onto deep-seat­ed pop­u­lar tra­di­tions, Marx­ism is trapped, as it were, between two temp­ta­tions and two tra­di­tions: the work­erist tra­di­tion stem­ming from the actu­al prac­tice of the work­ing class (cf. going back to the 19th cen­tu­ry, Sorelism and Gues­dism) and rein­forced by the “Bol­she­vik ide­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion”10 spread by the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al; and the Jacobin tra­di­tion that comes to the move­ment from above and pro­vides it with a juridi­cal dimen­sion (mak­ing pro­grams, defend­ing their “let­ter,” pro­claim­ing rights), when it is not sta­tist (lead­er­ship from above, pri­ma­cy of cen­tral­ism…). These are tra­di­tions that – to say in pass­ing – hard­ly offer crit­i­cal anti­dotes to the de-Stal­in­iza­tion of the PCF, and have always pre­sent­ed obsta­cles to its authen­tic de-Stal­in­iza­tion – the lead­er­ship often makes appeals to work­erism to hide inter­nal polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions and resolve con­flicts in an admin­is­tra­tive man­ner…

This lack of cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny, the “French mis­ery,” tar­get­ed by Althuss­er, always ren­ders the rela­tion­ships between intel­lec­tu­als and the work­ing class prob­lem­at­ic. Out­side the great peri­ods of nation­al uni­ty (the Pop­u­lar Front in 1936 and the Resis­tance), the alliance breaks down at very moment when it needs to devel­op: in May ’68, but also in ’78, due to the PCF’s “mis­éra­biliste” elec­toral cam­paign.

There is doubt­less a deep­er rea­son: the famous “the­o­ry-ide­ol­o­gy” of state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism, the ver­i­ta­ble “cement” of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, as Althuss­er has shown in his arti­cles for Le Monde. The approach to con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism in terms of “state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism” has cer­tain­ly made pos­si­ble a more pre­cise analy­sis of the new role of monop­o­lies in eco­nom­ic accu­mu­la­tion, and the par­tic­u­lar effects on the trans­for­ma­tion of the state. But it remains caught in an “instru­men­tal­ist” vision of the state, in an analy­sis of pow­er that amounts to a small caste of the most priv­i­leged (the “rich”), and is nar­row­ly framed in an econ­o­mistic-quan­ti­ta­tive approach to prob­lems (even if the glob­al, cul­tur­al, moral, and ide­o­log­i­cal dimen­sions of the cri­sis are high­light­ed) and forms of work­ers’ self-man­age­ment [auto­ges­tion] on the order of the day, such a “the­o­ry-ide­ol­o­gy” par­a­lyzes any con­crete approach to new social con­tra­dic­tions. What’s more, it con­ceals a glar­ing absence: the state.11

Under these con­di­tions, when faced with a less than sat­is­fy­ing alter­na­tive – either an ortho­dox Lenin­ism defend­ed by some, or a mech­a­nis­tic-econ­o­mistic Marx­ism, ready to liq­ui­date the con­cepts of Marx and Lenin (the infa­mous dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at) with­out debate and with­out advanc­ing alter­na­tive the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts – could Marx­ism real­ly have con­quered the cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny in France over the past ten years? At the same time when all ref­er­ences to liv­ing social­ism (I am not even talk­ing about a mod­el…) is col­laps­ing and in which the train­ing of youth, often mar­gin­al­ized, doomed to unem­ploy­ment in the grips of an unprece­dent­ed cri­sis of the edu­ca­tion­al appa­ra­tus could no longer take place through the “clas­si­cal” chan­nels (par­ties, or youth orga­ni­za­tion).

This is why, and with­out down­play­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of sev­er­al Marx­ist works dur­ing this peri­od, it nonethe­less seems that the analy­sis of cer­tain new prob­lems – “micro-pow­ers,” the “sub­ject,” the fam­i­ly, the divi­sion between the sex­es – stum­bled onto a ter­rain not broached in the his­to­ry of French Marx­ism, nor by Marx him­self. One thinks of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedi­pus (1972), for exam­ple, or Michel Foucault’s stud­ies (Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, 1975).

Truth be told, in dis­plac­ing the analy­sis of pow­er, and more pre­cise­ly strate­gies of pow­ers, from the field of the law towards that of the norm, towards forms of social con­trol and dis­ci­plines which pro­duce real­i­ty, Foucault’s work is not sit­u­at­ed from the first out­side of Marx­ist analy­sis, final­ly stripped of its econ­o­mistic demons and capa­ble of acknowl­edg­ing Marx’s lim­its. Gilles Deleuze, in artic­u­lat­ing Foucault’s “the­o­ret­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion,” no doubt priv­i­leged the force of his break with Marx­ism and the tra­di­tion­al left through the aban­don­ment of its clas­si­cal pos­tu­lates: prop­er­ty (class pow­er), local­iza­tion (state pow­er), sub­or­di­na­tion (state/infrastructure), mode of action (ide­ol­o­gy or repres­sion), and legal­i­ty.12

But the breaks are all the more stronger because they are aimed at a “reduc­tive” kind of Marx­ist analy­sis, unable to think the “rev­o­lu­tion in the West” and the dif­fer­ent ram­i­fi­ca­tions of pow­er, spread through­out the case­mates of civ­il soci­ety, in “hege­mon­ic appa­ra­tus­es.” In short, can one not say that “the state relies on the insti­tu­tion­al inte­gra­tion of pow­er rela­tion­ships?”13

If the cur­rent task of Marx­ism con­sists in return­ing to its crit­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary bear­ing, and if, as I believe, this crit­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary think­ing pass­es through a cri­tique of pol­i­tics, sev­er­al con­clu­sions should be drawn. Name­ly: this crit­i­cal think­ing can­not be a sta­tist think­ing, nor a think­ing of the “par­ty,” but indeed a the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny. With this clar­i­fi­ca­tion: far from being reducible to ide­ol­o­gy (dom­i­nant or not), on the con­trary the con­cept of hege­mo­ny pre­sup­pos­es the elab­o­ra­tion of a new the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy (which Gram­sci charts through the float­ing terms of com­mon sense, the nation­al-pop­u­lar, organ­ic ide­olo­gies). This is in order to think the hid­den face of right: the nor­ma­tive (which Gram­sci research­es through lan­guage, laws, Tay­lorist prac­tices of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, sex­u­al moral­i­ty. All the more rea­son to acknowl­edge that in our soci­ety, pow­er rela­tions do not only encom­pass class rela­tions, but go beyond them, rework them, even if this analy­sis can­not over­look the ques­tion of rela­tions of exploita­tion and class pow­er.

And yet, how does one not see that this ques­tion has an imme­di­ate­ly prac­ti­cal impor­tance? Has not the cri­sis of Stal­in­ism lead to the cri­sis of de-Stal­in­iza­tion, and to the nor­mal­iza­tion of the Prague Spring? Thus deep­en­ing an old­er “cri­sis of Marx­ism,” from which we have not yet exited…for the inva­sion of Czecho­slo­va­kia, the sti­fling of a demo­c­ra­t­ic renew­al asso­ci­at­ed with the rebirth of free­doms and the cre­ation of new (coun­cilist) forms of democ­ra­cy has ren­dered this “state” social­ism more intol­er­a­ble than ever, through­out an entire his­tor­i­cal peri­od – a bureau­crat­ic, oppres­sive state social­ism for­eign to the ideas of social­ism held by Marx and Lenin. The dis­cov­ery of the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and anti-Lenin­ist dimen­sions of the Sovi­et state can only to the ques­tion raised by Rossana Rossan­da at the Venice con­fer­ence orga­nized by Il Man­i­festo: “Why have all the rev­o­lu­tions thus far come to grief on the key prob­lem of the state and free­dom?”

It is clear that this ques­tion calls for a Marx­ist approach to Stal­in­ism, and an inter­ro­ga­tion of the capac­i­ty of Marx­ism to set about this exhaus­tive analy­sis. Between a “the­o­ry of the state” giv­en in the guise of a the­o­ry-prac­tice of the non-state, a state that orga­nizes its own his­tor­i­cal dis­ap­pear­ance through an alter­na­tive, non-bour­geois form of the state (the state of “sovi­ets”) and the exis­tence of a the­o­ry-prac­tice of the par­lia­men­tary state, there seems to be a void [vide]. In this sense, Marx­ist analy­sis has repro­duced the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy: between democ­ra­cy under­stood in the lib­er­al sense (free­doms, pri­mar­i­ly indi­vid­ual free­doms, rep­re­sen­ta­tive forms), fol­low­ing Locke; and democ­ra­cy under­stood as the direct self-gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple, fol­low­ing Rousseau. And yet, it indeed appears that one or the oth­er would be strate­gi­cal­ly imprac­ti­ca­ble for a “pol­i­tics of social­ism” ade­quate to our soci­eties.

But are we then resigned to an ongo­ing seis­mo­graph­ic oscil­la­tion between a move­ment with­out a pro­gram (May ’68) and a pro­gram with­out a move­ment (May ’78)?

Both the clas­si­cal, frontal strat­e­gy of insur­rec­tion and a par­lia­men­tary strat­e­gy direct­ed from above have failed in France. Per­haps because they have only oper­at­ed in view of the state, with­out approach­ing the ques­tion of the state start­ing from a cri­tique of polit­i­cal prac­tices and a non-sta­tist under­stand­ing of hege­mo­ny?14

It is nec­es­sary, then, to mod­i­fy our rela­tion­ship to Marx­ism today, to begin from its lacu­nas, its points of fragili­ty – to open­ly con­front its for­bid­den zones, its blind spots, its “con­ser­v­a­tive” aspects (cf. the ques­tion of fem­i­nism…), so that this real cri­sis becomes an eman­ci­pa­to­ry one, pro­duc­ing oth­er analy­ses, oth­er polit­i­cal prac­tices.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King

This text was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as “Mai 68 et la crise du marx­isme,” Poli­tique Aujourd’hui No. 5-6 (May-June 1978): 139-147.

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

  1. Michael J. Crozi­er, Samuel P. Hunt­ing­ton, and Jojo Watanu­ki, The Cri­sis of Democ­ra­cy: Report on the Gov­ern­abil­i­ty of Democ­ra­cies to the Tri­lat­er­al Com­mis­sion (New York: NYU Press, 1975). In his report on West­ern Europe, ana­lyz­ing the “col­lapse of tra­di­tion­al insti­tu­tions” (church, school, cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tions, even the army), those “stronghold[s] of the moral fab­ric of West­ern soci­eties,” Crozi­er rec­om­mends a return to more “flex­i­ble,” less open­ly “coer­cive,” let’s say “lib­er­al” forms of social con­trol. An ide­o­log­i­cal strat­e­gy of impe­ri­al­ism that con­nects with Carter’s “moral­ism: on “human rights,” and has cer­tain over­laps with the “new philoso­phers” in France. 

  2. One could draw sev­er­al use­ful com­par­isons between a text by Guizot, “Democ­ra­cy in France,” (1849), and that of Gis­card d’Estaing, French Democ­ra­cy; as well as between Ben­jamin Constant’s lib­er­al cri­tique Con­stant of “total­i­tar­i­an” democ­ra­cy and the dis­course that has flour­ished these last few years. Cf. Paul Béni­chou, Le Temps des prophètes: doc­trines de l’âge roman­tique (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1977). 

  3. Cap­i­tal­ized in orig­i­nal. 

  4. On this con­sti­tu­tion of the bour­geois polit­i­cal space: Jür­gen Haber­mas, The Struc­tur­al Trans­for­ma­tion of the Pub­lic Sphere: An Inquiry into a Cat­e­go­ry of Bour­geois Soci­ety, trans. Thomas Burg­er and Fred­er­ick Lawrence (Boston: MIT Press, 1989). 

  5. Translator’s Note: This state­ment is found in Engels’s 1886 work, Lud­wig Feuer­bach and the End of Clas­si­cal Ger­man Phi­los­o­phy

  6. See Louis Althuss­er, “Marx­ism as Finite The­o­ry,” in the present dossier. 

  7. On this point, and on strate­gies of famil­ial “nor­mal­iza­tion,” cf. Jacques Donzelot, La police des familles (Paris; Minu­it, 1977), and the recent issue of Recherch­es, no. 28 (Sep­tem­ber 1977), “Dis­ci­plines à domi­cile: L’édification de la famille.” 

  8. Translator’s Note: The ref­er­ence is to Lucien Sève, Man in Marx­ist The­o­ry and the Psy­chol­o­gy of Per­son­al­i­ty, trans. John McGre­al (Atlantic High­lands, NJ: Human­i­ties Press, 1978). Buci-Glucksmann’s cri­tique here seems direct­ed at the “sci­en­tif­ic” char­ac­ter of Sève endeav­or, and his attempt to found a sci­en­tif­ic, non-spec­u­la­tive Marx­ist approach to psy­chol­o­gy. For a recent read­ing of this work in rela­tion to cer­tain of Althusser’s con­cepts, see Ted Stolze, “Althuss­er and the Prob­lem of His­tor­i­cal Indi­vid­u­al­i­ty,” Cri­sis & Cri­tique 2.2 (Novem­ber 2015): 195-214. 

  9. Translator’s Note: The Fed­er­a­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Social­ist Left was an elec­toral coali­tion of left, non-com­mu­nist groups, formed in the mid-60s amongst Gaullist gov­ern­men­tal hege­mo­ny. Dur­ing the events of May, it tried to trans­late the unrest into a new polit­i­cal bloc, call­ing for a snap elec­tion and the for­ma­tion of a pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment led by Pierre Mendès France. One of the cen­tral lega­cies of the FDSL was that it was the vehi­cle for Fran­cois Mitterrand’s rise as the most promi­nent social­ist fig­ure in France, and its dis­so­lu­tion was a fac­tor in the con­sti­tu­tion of the Social­ist Par­ty in 1969. 

  10. On this Bol­she­vik ide­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion and its work­erist dimen­sion, I refer to Charles Bet­tel­heim, Class Strug­gles in the USSR, Sec­ond Peri­od: 1923-1930, trans. Bri­an Pearce (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1978), 500ff. 

  11. I will not dwell on this ques­tion, already debat­ed in the col­lec­tion La crise de l’Etat, ed. Nicos Poulantzas and Suzanne de Brun­hoff (Paris: PUF, 1976), and Poulantzas’s oth­er works. 

  12. Gilles Deleuze, Fou­cault, trans. Séan Hand (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1986), espe­cial­ly chap­ter 2, “A New Car­tog­ra­ph­er.” 

  13. Michel Fou­cault, The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume One: An Intro­duc­tion, trans. Robert Hur­ley (New York: Vin­tage, 1978), 96. 

  14. For an ini­tial approach to this cri­tique, see the col­lec­tive work, Cri­tique des pra­tiques poli­tiques, ed. Pierre Birn­baum and Jean-Marie Vin­cent (Paris: Édi­tions Galilée, 1978). In the space of this arti­cle, I have not dealt with the analy­sis of Euro­com­mu­nism as a symp­tom and con­den­sa­tion of the cri­sis of Marx­ism, which I devel­op in my text in the work cit­ed above: Chris­tine Buci-Glucks­mann, “Euro­com­mu­nisme, tran­si­tion et pra­tiques poli­tiques,” Cri­tique des pra­tiques poli­tiques, 103-120. 

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and professor emerita at University of Paris-VIII. She is the author of Gramsci and the State (1975) and Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity (1984).