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Essay

The Boy Scout's Guide to the Situationist International:
The Effect The S.I. Had On Paris '68 And All That, Through The Angry Brigade And King Mob To The Sex Pistols

by Tom Vague


At first the events in Strasbourg didn't seem to have much effect. But in the following months the ideas and tactics of the Situationist International (or at least a fair old bit of discontent, fueled by the Strasbourg pamphlet spread like wildfire through the universities of France.

In the mid-60's the French University system was heading for trouble anyway - largely due to overcrowding. The government tried to deal with the crisis by setting up overspill colleges in the provinces and slum-outskirts of Paris. This made matters worse. One of the Paris overspill colleges in particular, Nanterre, situated amidst waste disposal tips and the spanish immigrant ghetto, was almost perfect for intervention. There was already a strong feeling of alienation amongst the students; uprooted from their former teeming cafe lifestyle in the Latin Quarter and dumped in council flat style blocks; separate residential blocks for males and females, no recreational facilities, everything controlled by a faceless centralized bureaucracy in Paris. It was all straight out of Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

However Nanterre did have one of the few Sociology departments in France and, at the beginning of 1968, a lot of radical students were concentrated there. In due course a list of reforms was drawn up. Quite reasonably they wanted to specialize in subjects of their own choice, but that wasn't all by any means. They deliberately pressed on with claims they knew would be rejected, and all talk of reform was soon forgotten: As they used to say, be realistic demand the impossible.

The students involved became known as 'LES ENRAGES' because of their theatrical nature and the violence of their demonstrations (the name originally comes from an 18th Century revolutionary group led by Jacques Roux, who ended up being guillotined by the Revolutionary Tribunal). To support their reforms they began disrupting lectures, breaking down all communication between lecturers and students: then escalating the ensuing disorder by spreading rumours that plain-clothes police had infiltrated the campus to compile a black-list of trouble-makers. The SU protested. The situation was developing.

The first major incident occurred when the Minister of Sport came to open a new olympic-swimming pool. A vandal orgy had been planned for the opening ceremony and the minister's route was sprayed with graffiti. But nothing happened until the minister was about to leave. Then, so the story goes, a red-haired youth stepped out from the crowd and shouted;

"Minister, you've drawn up a report on french youth 600 pages long but there isn't a word in it about our sexual problems. Why not?"

The minister replied, "I'm quite willing to discuss this matter with responsible people, but you are certainly not one of them. I myself prefer sport to sexual education. If you have sexual problems, I suggest you jump in the pool."

To which Danny Cohn-Bendit countered, "that's what the Hitler Youth used to say!" and immediately shot into the headlines and secret police files (if he wasn't in the latter already.)

Les Enrages capitalized on this development by parading up and down the hall of the Sociology building, with placards displaying blown-up pictures of alleged plain-clothes police. One of the staff complained and tried to enforce the college ban on political demonstrations. There was a scuffle and the Dean called the police.

This was just what Les Enrages were waiting for. Within an hour 4 truck loads of armed police were let into the University by the Dean. Les Enrages threw everything they could lay their hands on at them, luring them into the University so everybody could see exactly what was going on. The Police were no longer a rumour, they were very much fact. Moderate students duly joined in to drive the police out of the University. Provocation had drawn repression, which in turn had rallied mass support. It was a classic Situationist victory.

Les Enrages continued to build on this emotional reaction to the authorities repression, until 3 anti-Vietnam War bombings took place in Paris. 5 members of 'The National Committee For Vietnam' were arrested. On March 22nd, as a protest against the arrests, a group of Les Enrages and some anti-Vietnam war demonstrators occupied the administration offices at Nanterre and decided to get a real Movement going. "THE MOVEMENT OF MARCH 22nd" was to have no organization as such, no hierarchy and no hard and fast programme. Obviously it was political, but it did'nt follow one political doctrine. There were anarchists, Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists, all manner of -ists, and of course, a bit of Situationist in there somewhere.

Dany Cohn-Bendit soon established himself as the principal spokesman; describing himself as 'a megaphone' for the Movement and 'an anarchist by negation'. He said he despised authoritarian Marxist-Leninist hierarchies almost as much as capitalism itself but, "I don't live in Russia, I live here, so I carry on the fight against the French Bourgeoisie." Cohn-Bendit and the situationists wanted a horizontal, federal organization of Workers' Councils, who act together but preserve their autonomy, Direct Democracy. The hard-line Leftist factions did'nt always share this view but the Movement was held together simply by a desire to change society.

They had no illusions of overthrowing Bourgeois Society in one foul swoop. No Revolution. The plan was to stage a series of revolutionary shocks. Each one setting off a irreversible process of change. The March 22nd Movement acting as detonator but not attempting to control the forces it unleashed. They realized such a revolt could not last, but at least it would provide a glimpse of what was possible. If they failed it was just a matter of time before another situation developed in another place in another way.

Anyway, at Nanterre the threat of The March 22nd Movement and what the Dean described as "a real war psychosis", led to the University being closed down and Red Danny and some others being summoned before a disciplinary tribunal. On May 3rd hundreds of left wing students gathered at the Sorbonne, the originally overcrowded University in Paris, to protest. The Rector of the University became worried, especially when he heard that a group of right-wing students were gathering nearby. He rang the Minister of Education and together they decided to bring in the police, despite what happened at Nanterre.

Silently groups of students were bundled into police trucks. Then, as the first load was being driven away, shouting and jeering broke out from the assembled crowd. Someone threw a stone through the windscreen of the truck and hit one of the police. The students surged forward and tried to liberate their comrades (woops!...friends). Tear gas was fired and the violence escalated: The police beating innocent by-standers and street fighters alike. The students setting light to cars and tearing up paving stones, iron gratings, traffic signs, anything that could be hurled at the police.

The rioting spread throughout the Latin Quarter and at the end of the day 597 people had been arrested and hundreds more injured. The Authorities heavy handling of the situation had provided tens of thousands of young parisians with something concrete to release their pent-up anger/ frustration/ alienation/ resentment on. The cry of 'Liberez nos Camarades!' went up and the students held their ground for a week; during which more and more young people joined their increasingly militant demonstrations. Finally, on May 11th, M. Pompidou withdrew the police from the Latin Quarter and said the case of the arrested students would be reconsidered and the University reopened.

As news of the Events spread, via TV-footage of the burning barricades and street battles, thousands of young people from, not just France but, all over Europe made for Paris. Many of them from affiliated student groups but also individuals drawn by something relevant to their own situation. Amongst the English contingent were John Barker, Anna Mendelson and Christopher Bott, who would put the ideas they experienced into practice back home and go down in history (as well as literally) as part of "The Stoke Newington Eight" Also, if you believe the story, Malcolm McLaren was given a guided tour of the barricades by his art school buddy Fred Vermorel and returned to put the ideas in practice in a different way.

"A good time to be free," was how Christopher Bott described it, "Imagination was seizing power" ' The Sorbonne was transformed from an institutionalized bureaucratic conditioning centre to "a Volcano of revolutionary ideas". Everything was up for debate, everything was being challenged. Day and night every lecture hall was packed. Passionate debates on every subject went on continuously. The spirit of Arthur Rimbaud had returned. The Paris Commune had become a reality. Nothing like it had been seen before anywhere.

This is how another english student described it in 'Solidarity': "First impression was of a gigantic lid being lifted, pent-up thoughts and aspirations suddenly exploding, on being released from the realm of dreams into the realm of the Real and Possible. In changing their environment people themselves were changed. Those who had never dared to say anything before suddenly felt their thoughts to be the most important thing in the world and said so. The helpless and isolated suddenly discovered that collective power lay in their hands...People just went up and talked to one another without a trace of self-consciousness. This state of euphoria lasted throughout the whole fortnight I was there."

It was then that the inspiration for the Sex Pistols best lyrics and t-shirt slogans was written, on the walls; "GO AND DIE IN NAPLES WITH THE CLUB MEDITERRANEE,"
"BE REALISTIC DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE,"
"LONG LIVE COMMUNICATION! DOWN WITH TELECOMMUNICATION!,"
"IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID,"
"TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,"
"REFUSE YOUR ASSIGNED ROLES,"
"NEVER WORK,"
"CULTURE IS THE INVERSION OF LIFE,"
"THE COMMODITY IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE,"
"SCREAM, STEAL, EJACULATE YOUR DESIRES,"
"THE MORE YOU CONSUME THE LESS YOU LIVE,"
"THEY ARE BUYING YOUR HAPPINESS, STEAL IT,"
"KNOWLEDGE IS INSEPARABLE FROM THE USE TO WHICH YOU PUT IT BE CRUEL,"
"DOWN WITH THE NAZARENE TOAD,"
"EVEN IF GOD EXISTED WE WOULD HAVE TO SUPPRESS HIM,"
"ART IS DEAD: DO NOT CONSUME ITS CORPSE,"
"LIVE WITHOUT RESTRICTIONS OR DEADTIME."

But while the Sorbonne became the hip place to be in '68, all the Centre Censier members of the Situationist International, Les Enrages and some others were forming 'The Council For The Maintenance Of The Occupations. Their aim was to set up Worker/Student Action Committees to maintain the many sit-ins and strikes that had spread from Paris to the rest of France.

By May 21st, 10 million french workers were on strike, most factories were occupied, the french transport system had come to a standstill, everybody from pro-footballers to film directors (though not Polanski) were supporting the students. But nobody seemed to know what to do next: they had taken over the factories; the means of production and thrown open the doors to the institutions. But where to from there?

The SI and Les Enrages at the Centre Censier tried to show how it could be followed up by producing leaflets on self-management and workers' councils. Whilst, at the same time, denouncing the leftist recouperators who were trying to take the credit and manipulate things for their own party political ends. The Communist Party, who refused to acknowledge any individual revolutionary activity actually by the people, were having decidedly unproductive dialogue with Cohn-Bendit. Dany the Red ended up calling them "Stalinist Filth" and the big Communist Trade Union, the CGT, refused to back the Revolution because it wasn't under the control of their central committee. The same story as the Spanish Civil War where the communists blew it because it wasn't on their terms. But at least they did'nt back the elections called for by the opposition.

De Gaulle formally (and characteristically) called on the Army. On May 28th he made a secret flight to Baden-Baden in West Germany, where General Massu, the Commander of the French troops, was stationed on NATO exercises. The following day he returned to Paris with Massu's assurance that the army was still loyal enough to support him in any confrontation. First he called M. Pompidou and his Cabinet to tell them he was going to dissolve the National Assembly and call an election. Then, at 4:30 that afternoon, he addressed the Nation and basically lied that the Country was threatened by a "communist dictatorship" to rally support for the Republic. Promised to give greater powers to the Prefects of the Provinces and, that if necessary, he would have no hesitation in calling in General Massu and his troops (as if anyone thought he would have anyway). Vive La France!

And that was it. Of course it worked, the old communist bogeyman was all that was needed to whip up enough patriotic fervour to get the Centre to join with The Right and recouperate the situation. Extra petrol rations and free coaches were laid on and they came from all over France to La Place De La Concorde (De Gaulle's face?), for a carefully orchestrated march to The Eternal Flame at L'Arc De Triomphe; the symbol of Nationalism. In the elections that followed De Gaulle was returned to power by the biggest majority in recent french history... well and truly recuperated.

Despite the millions on strike and the hundreds of thousands on the streets, it was always true that the Movement was basically the work of an intellectual elite and at the end of the day the silent majority couldn't be lured away from the capitalist carrot. They did'nt understand the intellectual repression felt by the students and their theories were all so much idle rubbish compared with the day to day reality of earning a crust. But having said that, De Gaulle had been lucky. Maybe not so lucky next time. The students had succeeded in bringing out the discontent in French Society at the ever increasing distance between the bureaucrats and those whose lives they control.

The physical recuperation took several months: State property had to be reclaimed, slogans painted over and foreign students deported; including Dany Cohn-Bendit and John Barker. But with France back in the grip of a right-wing, nationalistic fervour (which it has never really shook off to this day), the show was over. (The Situationist International itself, which had already split in 2, was further decimated by various expulsions, resignations and scissions until it's eventual demise in 1972 - It seems that half the fun of having an International in the first place is so you can expel people). From this point on the action moved with John Barker and chums, to England. A certain group of germans also incorporated some situationist ideas and, in America, groups such as the Yippies, Motherfuckers, SLA and The Weathermen (but by 1969 the hippies had been recuperated to such an extent that there wasn't anywhere much to intervene in America).

The legacy of May '68 was to be felt for some time yet. The nights on the barricades and the exhilaration of new ideas had proved to the people there that revolution/ change was possible, not only possible but inevitable, and that capitalist society was in it's death throes. The situationist idea of intervening in a situation, with deliberate and systematic provocation, as put into practice by the 22nd March Movement, had been proven to work very effectively and very dramatically.

Where Paris had succeeded and the most important lesson of May '68 was final proof that the traditional revolutionary groups were now as outmoded, institutionalized and oppressive as the capitalists in power and were just as much slaves of the Spectacular Society. Final proof, that since the halcyon days of Marx, Bakunin and Lenin, they too had been recouperated and indeed become recouperators in their own right. They lost face to thousands of young people when they came out in their true colours, against the anti-hierarchy, self-management notions of the 22nd March Movement. And especially when it was proved, contrary to communist dogma, that self-management does in fact work. Why not let the people decide?

"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal or constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth."

-Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life.

 

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