Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism: The Singer Model

By Lynd, Staughton | Monthly Review, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism: The Singer Model


Lynd, Staughton, Monthly Review


Daniel Singer's first book was Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, published in 1970. There he posed the question: "Could it be that a socialist revolution is beginning, that Marxism is returning to its home ground, the advanced countries for which it was designed?" And he answered his own question, Yes. The main message of the May crisis was that a "revolutionary situation can occur in an advanced capitalist country."

Singer saw in France, in 1968, a revolution from below, a spontaneous upheaval. It began in the universities of Paris. Then it spread to factories all over France, as ten million workers occupied the places where they worked. Singer expressed passionate disdain for the Communist-dominated trade union movement, which, he argued, functioned as a brake on the revolution from below. What French workers did was direct action expressed in sit-downs and factory takeovers. It was the creation of a "dual power" parallel to that of the government, in the form, not of trade unions, but of revolutionary action committees. Singer asserted that in France, in 1968, students and workers sought "a new form of democracy, including industrial democracy, that does not just rest on an occasional ballot." Whether articulated by students or by workers, the ideology of May 1968 was a "revulsion against anything coming from above, against centralism, authority, the hierarchical order."

For Daniel Singer, what happened in France in 1968 became during the remainder of his life the paradigm for an interrelationship of social forces that held out hope for a transition from capitalism to socialism, after all. We may term it the "Singer model." The outstanding characteristics of the Singer model are that 1) students act before (or at any rate, independently of) workers, but 2) when workers intervene in support of (or against the same enemies as) students, "rebellion [turns] into potential revolution." Singer stressed that in France "the students dearly did not think that their struggle was a separate one. They wanted to break out of their ghetto and turn to the workers."

This suggested model of revolution was something new under the sun. Singer recognized that "workers cannot conquer economic power under capitalism as the bourgeoisie did under feudalism." Building a new society within the shell of the old would be less possible for the working class than it had been for the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless Singer saw in the French events the possibility of a series of steps whereby the working class, acting, as physicists say, "in parallel" to the revolt of the young, could approach the transition to socialism.

This new theory of the transition from capitalism to socialism drew on French and Italian ideas about "structural reform" or "revolutionary reform" (popularized in English by Andre Gorz). May 1968, as befits a prelude, exhibited only scattered concrete expressions of these ideas. In a few cases workers not only occupied their factories, but also attempted to restart production. Perhaps the most significant prefigurative institution was the workers' practice of gathering at the workplace "in general assemblies meeting every day" to decide what to do next, a practice that reappeared during the French general strikes of 1995. The term that held the most promise for the future, in Latin America as well as in Europe, was "autogestion" or "self-management." Here, Singer wrote, "would lie the opportunity to move quickly from workers' control to a share of the management and then to full management by collective producers." Writing thirty years later just before his death, Singer still saw the strategy of "structura l reforms" or "revolutionary reformism" as the path to the future.

What should we think about the Singer model? Thirty-some years after he put it forward, does it still make sense? How do Singer's ideas compare with those of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and C. L. R. James? How does what happened in France in 1968 resemble or differ from what happened in Russia in 1905, in Hungary in 1956, in the Vietnam antiwar movement, or in Poland in 1980-1981?

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