JEAN-PAUL SARTRE’S INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL COHN-BENDIT (1968)

 

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: Within a few days, although no one called for a general strike, France has been practically paralyzed by work stoppages and factory occupations. And all because the students took control of the streets in the Latin Quarter. What is your analysis of the move­ment you have unleashed? How far might it go?

 

DANIEL COHN-BENDIT: It has grown much larger than we could have foreseen at the start. The aim is now the overthrow of the regime. But it is not up to us whether or not this is achieved. If the Communist Party, the CGT, and the other union headquarters shared it there would be no problem; the regime would fall within a fortnight, as it has no coun­terthrust against a trial of strength supported by all working-class forces.

 

J-P. S.: For the moment there is an obvious disproportion between the massive nature of the strike movement, which does, indeed, make possible a direct confrontation with the regime, and the demands the trade unions have pre­sented, which are still limited ones: for wages, work organization, pensions, etc.

 

D. C-B.: There has always been a disjunction in workers' struggles between the strength of the action and the initial demands. But it might be that the success of the action, the dy­namism of the movement, could alter the na­ture of the demands en route. A strike launched for a partial victory may change into a move­ment for insurrection.

 

Even so, some of the demands put forward by the workers today are very far-reaching: a real 40-hour week, for example, and, at Re­nault's, a minimum wage of 1,000 francs per month. The Gaullist regime cannot accept them without a total loss of face and, if it holds out, then there will be a confrontation. Suppose the workers hold out, too, and the regime falls. What will happen then? The left will come to power. Everything will then depend on what it does. If it really changes the system-I must admit I doubt if it will-it will have an audi­ence, and all will be well. But if we have a Wil­son-style government,' with or without the Communists, which only proposes minor reforms and adjustments, then the extreme left will regain its strength and we shall have to go on posing the real problems of social control, workers' power, and so on.

 

But we have not reached that stage yet, and it is not at all certain even that the regime will fall.

 

J-P. S.: When the situation is a revolutionary one, a movement like your own may not be stopped, but it may be that its impetus will fade. In that case you will have to try to go as far as possible before you come to a halt. What irreversible results do you think the present movement will achieve, supposing that it soon stops?

 

D. C-B.: The worker will obtain the satisfac­tion of a number of material demands, and the moderates in the student movement and the teachers will put through important university reforms. These will not be the radical reforms we should like to see, but we shall still be able to bring some pressure to bear: we will make particular proposals, and no doubt a few of them will be accepted because they won't dare refuse us everything. That will be some progress, of course, but nothing basic will have changed and we shall continue to challenge the system as a whole.

 

Besides, I don't believe the revolution is pos­sible overnight like that. I believe that all we can get are successive adjustments of more or less importance, but these adjustments can only be imposed by revolutionary action. That is how the student movement, which, even if it does temporarily lose its energy, will still have achieved an important university reform, can act as an example to many young workers. By using the traditional means of action of the workers' movement strikes, occupations of the streets and workplaces-we have destroyed the first barrier: the myth that "nothing can be done about the regime." We have proved that this is not true. And the workers rushed into the breach. Perhaps this time they won't go right to the end. But there will be other explosions later on. What matters is that the effectiveness of revolutionary methods has been proved.

 

The union of workers and students can only be achieved in the dynamics of action if the stu­dent's movement and the workers' movement each sustain their own impetus and converge on one aim. At the moment, naturally and under­standably enough, the workers distrust the students.

 

J-P. S.: This distrust is not natural, it has been acquired. It did not exist at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and did not appear until after the massacres of June 1848. Before that, republicans-who were intellectuals and petty bourgeois-and workers marched to­gether. This unity has been out of the question ever since, even in the Communist Party, which. has always carefully separated workers and intellectuals.

 

D. C-B.: But something did happen during the crisis. At Billancourt, the workers would not let the students into the factories. But even the fact that students went to Billancourt was new and important. In fact, there were three stages. First, open mistrust, not only in the working-class press, but among the work­ers themselves. They said, "Who are all these father's boys who have come here to annoy us?" Then, after the street battles, the stu­dents' struggle with the police, this feel­ing disappeared and solidarity was effectively achieved.

 

Now we are in a third stage: the workers and peasants have entered the struggle in their turn, but they tell us, "Wait a little, we want to fight our own battles for ourselves!" That is to be expected. Union can only take place later on if the two movements, the students' movement and the workers' movement, maintain their im­petus. After fifty years of distrust, I don't think what is called "dialogue" is possible. It is not just a matter of talk. We should not expect the workers to welcome us with open arms. Contact will only be made when we are fighting side by side. We might for example set up common revolutionary action groups in which workers and students raise problems and act to­gether. There are places where that will work, and others where it won't.

 

J-P. S.: The problem remains the same: ad­justments or revolution. As you have said, everything you do by force is recovered posi­tively by the reformists. Thanks to your action, the university will be readjusted, but only within the framework of a bourgeois society.

 

D. C-B.: Obviously, but I believe that is the only way to advance. Take the examinations, for example. There can be no doubt that they will take place. But certainly not in the way they used to. A new formula will be round. And once they take place in an unusual way, an irreversible process of reforms will have been set moving. I don't know how far it will go, and I know it will be a slow process, but it is the only possible strategy.

 

I am not interested in metaphysics, in look­ing for ways to "make the revolution." As I have said, I think that we are moving toward a perpetual change of society, produced by revo­lutionary actions at each stage. A radical change in the structure of our society would only be possible if, for example, a serious eco­nomic crisis, the action of a powerful workers' movement and vigorous student activity sud­denly converged. These conditions have not all been realized today. At best we can hope to bring down the government. We must not dream of destroying bourgeois society. That does not mean that there is nothing to be done; on the contrary, we must struggle step by step, on the basis of a global challenge….

 

J-P. S.: What many people cannot understand is the fact that you have not tried to work out a program or to give your movement a structure. They attack you for trying to "smash everything" without knowing-or at any rate saying-what you would like to put in place of what you demolish.

 

D. C-B.: . . . Our movement's strength is pre­cisely that it is based on an "uncontrollable" spontaneity, that it gives an impetus without trying to canalize it or use the action it has unleashed to its own profit. There are clearly two solutions open to us today. The first would be to bring together half-a-dozen people with politi­cal experience, ask them to formulate some convincing immediate demands, and say, "Here is the student movement's position, do what you like with it!" That is the bad solution. The sec­ond is to try to give an understanding of the sit­uation not to the totality of the students nor even to the totality of demonstrators, but to a large number of them. To do so we must avoid building an organization immediately, or defin­ing a program; that would inevitably paralyze us. The movement's only chance is the disorder that lets men speak freely, and which can result in a form of self-organization. For example, we should now give up mass-spectacular meetings and turn to the formation of work and action groups. That is what we are trying to do at Nanterre.

 

But now that speech has been suddenly freed in Paris, it is essential first of all that people should express themselves. They say confused, vague things and they are often uninteresting things, too, for they have been said a hundred times before, but when they have finished, this allows them to ask "So what?" This is what matters, that the largest possible number of students say "So what?" Only then can a pro-gram and a structure be discussed. To ask us today, "What are you going to do about the ex­aminations?" is to wish to drown the fish, to sabotage the movement, and interrupt its dynamics. The examinations will take place and we shall make proposals, but give us time. First we must discuss, reflect, seek new formu­lae. We shall find them. But not today.

 

J-P. S.: You have said that the student move­ment is now on the crest of a wave. But the va­cation is coming, and with it a deceleration, probably a retreat. The government will take the opportunity to put through reforms. It will invite students to participate and many will ac­cept, saying either, "Reformism is all we want," or, "It is only reformism, but it is better than nothing, and we have obtained it by force." So you will have a transformed university, but the changes may be merely superficial ones, dealing particularly with the development of mate­rial facilities, lodgings, university restaurants. These things would make no basic changes in the system. They are demands that the authori­ties could satisfy without bringing the regime into question. Do you think that you could ob­tain any "adjustments" that would really introduce revolutionary elements into the bourgeois university--for example, that would make the education given at the university contradictory to the basic function of the university in the present regime: the training of cadres who are well integrated into the system?

 

D. C-B.: First, purely material demands may have a revolutionary content. On university restaurants we have a demand which is basic. We demand their abolition as university restaurants. They must become youth restau­rants in which all young people, whether stu­dents or not, can eat for 1.40 francs. No one can reject this demand: if young workers are work­ing during the day, there seems no reason why they should not dine for 1.40 francs in the evening. Similarly, with the university cities. There are many young workers and apprentices who would rather live away from their parents but who cannot take a room because that would cost them 30,000 francs per month; let us wel­come them to the cities, where the rent is from 9,000 to 10,000 francs per month. And let the well-to-do students in law and post-graduate students in political science go elsewhere.

 

Basically, I don’t think that any reforms the government might make would be enough to demobilize the students. There obviously will be a retreat during the vacation, but they will not "break" the movement. Some will say: "We have lost our chance," without any attempt to explain what has happened. Others will say: "The situation is not yet ripe." But many mili­tants will realize that we must capitalize on what has just taken place, analyze it theoreti­cally and prepare to resume our action next term. For there will be an explosion then, whatever the government's reforms. And the ex­perience of disorderly, unintentional, authority-provoked action we have just been through will enable us to make any action launched in the autumn more effective. The vacation will enable students to come to terms with the disarray they showed during the fortnight's crisis, and to think about what they want to and can do.

 

As to the possibility of making the education given at the university a "counter-education" manufacturing not well-integrated cadres but revolutionaries, I am afraid that seems to me a somewhat idealist hope. Even a reformed bour­geois education will still manufacture bour­geois cadres. People will be caught in the wheels of the system. At best they will become members of a right-thinking left, but objec­tively they will remain cogs ensuring the func­tioning of society.

 

Our aim is to pursue successfully a "parallel education" which will be technical and ideolog­ical. We must launch a university ourselves, on a completely new basis, even if it only lasts a few weeks. We shall call on left and extreme left teachers who are prepared to work with us in seminars and assist us with their knowl­edge--renouncing their “professional” status--in the investigations we shall undertake.

 

In all faculties we shall open seminars—not lecture courses, obviously—on the problems of the workers’ movement, on the use of technology in the interests of man, on the possibilities opened up by automation. And all this not from a theoretical viewpoint (every sociological study today opens with the words: “Technology must be made to serve man's interests”), but by posing concrete problems. Obviously, this edu­cation will go in the opposite direction to the education provided by the system and the ex­periment could not last long; the system would quickly react and the movement give way. But what matters is not working out a reform of capitalist society, but launching an experiment that completely breaks with that society, an ex­periment that will not last, but which allows a glimpse of a possibility: something which is re­vealed for a moment and then vanishes. But that is enough to prove that that something could exist.