Reform or Revolution? (About the movement against the pension reform in France)

Original in French : Réforme ou Révolution ?

It’s been a long time since a government project has provoked such social mobilization in France. Three, four million demonstrators. It is enormous. The French are very angry. More than eighty percent of the workers are, according to the official polling institutes, opposed to the reform of their pensions. Eighty percent means that at least forty to fifty million people are absolutely opposed to the postponement of the retirement age to 64. But then, where are they? Why don’t they join the demonstrations? Why don’t they make their opposition clear? Why do they accept (because to remain silent is to accept) without saying a word what they consider to be unfair? Why do they resign themselves?

These are the kind of questions that the young (he was 18 years old) Etienne de la Boétie was already asking himself in the sixteenth century. How is it, he said, that the ordinary people who produce the wealth and hold the power accept being governed and martyred by tyrants? To answer this question, he invented the concept of « voluntary submission ». The vast majority of individuals accept their condition as dominated people and this acceptance is of their own making.

One thing is clear: it is certainly voluntary, but it is above all the consequence of the indoctrination, the conditioning, the dumbing down that people undergo. From our earliest childhood, we are taught to obey the injunctions of the Authorities, never to contest them.

In the eighteenth century, the « philosophers of the Enlightenment », Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau etc… denounced those responsible for this conditioning: the State, religions, traditions. They explained that it was necessary to fight against them and that only the use of Reason would allow us to overcome them. Rational education, they said, was what the people needed to dispel the darkness of obscurantism and free them from the chains of slavery.

In the nineteenth century, thinkers like Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin and many others, accompanying the reflections of the nascent labor movement, dissected the functioning of the capitalist system, showed the division of society into antagonistic social classes, the fundamentally unjust and criminal character of this system and explained that only the collective action of the exploited could overcome it. From the middle of the century, workers began to organize themselves and these efforts resulted in the creation by workers of different nationalities of the First International with the unanimously accepted slogan: « the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves ». This slogan perfectly summarizes the program of the First International: to emancipate oneself is of course to destroy the existing economic and social system, to abolish the division of society into antagonistic social classes and the exploitation of man by man; but it is also to educate oneself, to cultivate one’s own culture, to develop one’s own identity, to develop a rational spirit among the workers, to make them conscious. The initiators of the International believed that a social revolution, the abolition of the state and of capitalist exploitation, required that the great mass of workers be enlightened, clear-sighted and commit themselves accordingly.

Shortly after the creation of the First International, Marx developed the idea, absolutely opposite, that the transformation of the society would not pass by the destruction of the State, but by its conquest, which required the seizure of the State institutions by a vanguard, a political party, by any means (elections, social movement, revolution). Once this objective was achieved, the State, placed at the service of the workers’ interests, had the task of preparing society for the passage to a later stage of communism. This intermediate stage has been called dictatorship of the proletariat. This method does not require the mass of workers to be enlightened and lucid, but only a small fraction, the vanguard, to whom the revolutionary work is delegated. So we go from « the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves » to « building the popular power, embodied by the Party ». In the mind of the wage earners, the solution proposed by Marx appeared infinitely simpler, faster than the one requiring the education of the mass of workers; and as a result, almost the entire international workers’ movement has been working on the construction of the Party of the working class and for more than 150 years, all over the world, parties that were supposed to embody the hopes of the exploited have been trying to conquer the state power in order to exert it for their own benefit. Many of these parties have come to power, either as a result of revolutions or through elections, but these experiments have always ended in resounding failures, sometimes even in catastrophes. Each time, it is the people, especially the workers and the exploited, who have paid the price. In 2023 in France, Macron – a former minister in a socialist government, elected in 2022 with the support of the trade unions – is shamelessly reversing all social advances. Many of those who rightly denounce his contempt today were singing his praises not long ago.

What is terrible is that history repeats itself: what we are experiencing, we have already experienced many times before. Things are clear, however, as long as the people choose to give up to one or a few individuals the unchecked power to decide what is good for them, it will be so. Macron is a traitor, of course, but the system of representative democracy that allowed him to come to power, that made a whole people abandon to him in confidence the mastery of its destiny, this representative system is even more infamous. In view of all the dangers that threaten us, it is urgent to put an end to this system and to replace it by a true democracy, direct democracy. But for this to happen, a significant proportion of the population must first be aware that a social revolution is desirable, that it is possible, and therefore to be committed to preparing it. This formidable work of consciousness raising is the finality of anarchosyndicalism.

Published in AIT-IWA Bulletin : IWA External Bulletin May 2023. (A4 Version)

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