Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative

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The student-led uprising that swept France in May, 1968 was self-consciously decentered. But we have a hard time understanding political action that has not been planned. So a center was manufactured.

Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Wednesday, January 2 2002, 9:21 AM


Reviewing this book presents the same paradox as writing it did. The student-led uprising that swept France in May, 1968 was self-consciously decentered. But we have a hard time understanding political action that has not been planned. So a center was manufactured. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit writes in the introduction to this book, "strange that a movement opposed to all leaders should have ended up with one all the same, that those who shun the limelight should be singled out for the full glare of publicity."

This reads a little like the "No" of a person who protests too much. Part of the problem is that the book fuses a narrative of that storied May with a wide-ranging critique of party politics. Cohn-Bendit's basic point, familiar to many of us today, but more novel in the months after the revolt is that the French Communist Party did everything in its power to preserve the status quo. He insists that this did not represent a betrayal of the party, but its fulfillment. It is the nature of any political party, he argues, to divide people into leaders and followers. So long as people do not have control over their own lives, there will never be a true revolution. Or, as The Who memorably put it: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

But Cohn-Bendit is not blind to his own rise to promise. To explain it, he deploys the category of revolutionary. "We are convinced that the revolutionary cannot and must not be a leader." That he is trying to describe himself here becomes clear when you read a statement he made in an interview from June, 1968, included here as an appendix: "I will never lead anything. I will never tall people what to do. What they want to do they will do, and what they don't want to do they won't." It's hard not to admire such steadfast commitment to worker control, particularly when you consider that Cohn-Bendit's subsequent political work with the Green Party in his native Germany has shown him to be a man of his words. You can almost feel his excitement when he writes about the local Action Committees in the revolt, "whose power of united action was in no way diminished by the absence of leaders at the top."

I wonder, though, whether Cohn-Bendit does himself justice. The most dramatic success of the student movement in the 1960s was a radical rethinking of education. Radical teachers struggled to find a way to reconcile their distrust of leadership with the realization that students need direction. The best of them set an example that complicates Cohn-Bendit's distinction between "leader" and "revolutionary." His book does the same thing. Even though it's rooted in a moment that is rapidly fading from view, it doesn't feel dated at all. It could easily have been written as a reflection on the Battle of Seattle and subsequent protests against free-market globalization. In short, it leads readers to political consciousness without leading them astray. Reflecting on the irony that a major publisher wanted his book, Cohn-Bendit concludes that, "they hope, perhaps, that the revolution will be abortive -- my readers may be among those to prove them wrong." Many abortions later, the hope lives on. Become those readers.

Obsolete Communism is available from AK Press 

Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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