Philippe Gottraux, Socialisme ou Barbarie, Editions Payot, Lausanne, 1997, pp427, 169 FF (25.75 euros)

SOCIALISME ou Barbarie (SouB) came into existence as a split from the French section of the Fourth International (PCI) in 1949; it continued until its decision to dissolve in 1967. Its highest membership figure was 87, and at times it had only around a dozen members. The circulation of the journal of the same name was at best around one thousand. Yet such a tiny grouping deserves such a substantial history, since it was one of the few revolutionary groupings of the period which made a genuine attempt to confront the changed realities of the post-1945 world.

Gottraux’s study, based on an detailed examination of the documentation, including minutes of meetings, and on interviews with over 40 former members, seems to be definitive. Its origin is in a doctoral thesis in sociology, and it bears some of the marks of this; at times fairly obvious points are made at inordinate length in tortuous jargon. The first half of the book — which gives a historical narrative of the group’s evolution — is the more interesting. But the whole book is rich in information, and will repay study.

The starting point of the SouB analysis was the identification of tendencies towards bureaucracy in both Western and Stalinist society. This led the ‘social barbarians’ (as they called themselves) to reject any notion that Russia was a ‘workers’ state’, and to be highly critical of the bureaucratic structures of the workers’ parties and unions in France. This liberated SouB from the sterile obsession of mainstream Trotskyism with workers’ states and parties, and allowed it to focus on the realities of working-class experience.

It was on this basis that SouB achieved its greatest successes, firstly, in the production of detailed accounts of day-to-day life in the workplace. This was above all the contribution of Daniel Mothé, a milling machine operator at Renault, who wrote copiously — two books and numerous articles for SouB and the left bourgeois press — on factory life. Secondly, this focus led SouB to reconsider the very definition of Socialism. In dropping the notion that the USSR was a workers’ state, it insisted on the importance of workers’ democracy and workers’ management — rather than planning or state ownership — as the fundamental criteria for a Socialist society.

Thirdly, SouB stood almost alone during the grim years of the Algerian war in giving maximum support to the movement for national independence whilst at the same time vigorously criticising the Third Worldist illusions that affected most sections of the left. Thus Jean-François Lyotard was actively involved with Henri Curiel’s network in providing practical support for the FLN, whilst at the same time writing a series of articles which clearly identified the class nature and limitations of the FLN as a movement. Lyotard’s later career as a post-modernist cannot in any way detract from the exceptional courage and lucidity he showed in this period.

Yet the recognition of SouB’s strengths leaves us with a major paradox. In its anti-Stalinism and its advocacy of workers’ democracy, SouB anticipated many of the ideas that were to blossom in 1968. Indeed, some of the leading activists of 1968 — notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Debord — were influenced by SouB. Yet by 1968 SouB had disappeared, and it was unable to make any intervention amongst a new generation who might have been receptive to ‘social barbarian’ ideas. (Pouvoir Ouvrier, which split from SouB in 1963, still existed in 1968, but liquidated itself in 1969.)

By the early 1960s, SouB had abandoned Marxism, and its three leading intellectuals — Castoriadis (alias Cardan, Chaulieu, etc), Claude Lefort and Lyotard were all to find fame and fortune as anti-Marxists. Yet, as Gottraux points out, it is quite inadequate to explain SouB’s failure simply by individual careerism. Ultimately, the weaknesses of SouB lay in both its political analysis and its concept of organisation.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that Castoriadis was a professional economist, SouB’s analysis was always sociological, and not economic. During the long boom of the 1950s, SouB accepted at face value the claim of capitalism’s apologists that it had resolved its economic problems, and that slumps and unemployment were a thing of the past. Hence the fundamental relation between classes was defined not in terms of exploitation, but of authority. Not only did SouB thus revert from Marxism to classical Anarchism, but it was quite unprepared for the more stormy economic circumstances that began to appear in the mid-1960s.

Moreover, although SouB was increasingly critical of Leninism, it actually inherited some of the worst elements of sectarianism and vanguardism from mainstream Trotskyism. Despite its small size, SouB made grandiose claims for the originality and uniqueness of its theoretical contribution, whilst, for example, showing little interest in the parallel development of the Socialist Review Group in Britain. (In 1949, SouB published a letter from Cuban Trotskyists recommending the work of Tony Cliff, but it never made any attempt to assess or criticise Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.)

This sectarianism was combined with considerable confusion as to the nature of the organisation. A very high level of activity was demanded of members — an early statement said every member should devote four evenings a week to the group, and at one point it was proposed to expel anyone who missed two consecutive meetings. As late as 1961, Mothé recorded that in six days, in addition to 12 hours a day spent at work or travelling, he had put in 27.5 hours of political work. Such frenetic activity is to be expected in a period with a high level of class struggle. When nothing is at stake but the production of a small-circulation magazine, such pressures must create unbearable tensions for members, as well as creating unnecessary barriers between the dedicated membership élite and those sympathetic to the group’s ideas, but unwilling to accept a monastic discipline.

Yet this intense commitment was combined with an organisational laxity, whereby members’ political practice was largely left to their own discretion. Intellectuals in the group pursued parallel careers, publishing academic texts in their own name and articles in SouB under a pseudonym. Even more seriously, trade union work was not under any control. There was undoubtedly a degree of truth in SouB’s view that the unions had become alien to the workers and out of their control. But in practice SouB’s anti-union stance meant that potential members were lost because they refused to abandon union work; meanwhile some SouB members were active in unions, but in a personal activity without guidance from or accountability to the group.

SouB was a failure, but it was a brave failure by a group of revolutionaries who wanted to confront the realities of their own age rather than to repeat the slogans of a past period. A critical study of its history can be an inspiration to a new generation.

Ian Birchall