Kristin Ross, the author of two remarkable books–on the events of 1968 in France (May ’68 and Its Afterlives) and the Paris Commune of 1871 (Communal Luxury), has now written a provocative article on the “The Long 1960s and ‘The Wind from the West.'” The article appears in an issue of Crisis and Critique devoted to analyzing May ‘68 in France. The whole issue is available online. Ross’s article can be read here.
Ross notes the fact that while images of May were hard to avoid in Paris early this year, most efforts to commemorate the explosive events “seemed to drain those references of any compelling interest.”
The one exception to that emptiness was the turn, early in 2018, of public attention to the ten-year struggle that had unfolded in an area in central France known as the Larzac. In 1971, 103 local sheepherding farmers organized to block the French government’s plan to seize their lands for the construction of an army training ground. Over the course of the decade-long struggle, hundreds of thousands of people from France and elsewhere travelled to the Larzac to support the farmers. The farmers won.
People returned to the memory of the Larzac struggle when, in January of this year, the Macron government announced that it would cancel the plans to build an airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France near Nantes in western France. Opposition to the proposed airport had eventually led to a prolonged occupation and a well-developed alternative and semi-autonomous community known as the “zad”. A coalition of “farmers, elected officials, townspeople, naturalists and occupiers” had successfully blocked all governmental efforts to move forward. As in the Larzac, “zad” (eventually known as the zone a defendre) attracted tens of thousands of supporters to help the occupiers construct buildings, work on the land and defend the natural wetlands environment. Seen from the future, the Larzac appeared to have been the beginning of something new—something new that would endure, something like “the future in the present” in 1971.
Ross then argues that the Larzac was not the only peasant struggle from the “long 1960s” that had illuminated new possibilities. She turns to Japan, specifically the countryside outside Tokyo, to remind us of the struggle of farmers, supported by left-wing students (in the Zengakuren), to stop the construction of yet another airport. That struggle was not successful and the airport was built. Nonetheless, Ross concludes that struggles initiated by peasants, linked with other social forces within the developed countries, had been “the most defining combats of the worldwide 1960s.”
In her view, the 1960s was the moment when “people throughout the world began to realize that the tension between the logic of development and that of the ecological bases of life had become the primary contradiction of their lives.” Suffice it to say, that is not the usual story of 1968 and its consequences.
Ross recounts her reasons for writing her book on 1968 (to show “what had happened concretely to a staggeringly varied array of ordinary people throughout France”) and discovers that she had made a surprising prophecy—that “there would come a day when an autodidact farmer like Bernard Lambert would emerge as a
far more powerful figure of ’68 politics in France than Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Lambert was the co-editor of a farmers’ journal in 1967 and 1968, titled “The Wind from the West”.
In the summer of 1973, Lambert went to Larzac and spoke in front of a large demonstration of the farmers’ supporters. He reminded the crowd of what had occurred in 1871 when the peasants supported the government against the communards of Paris and insisted that: “jamais plus les paysans ne seraient des Versaillais (never again will country people be on the side of the Versaillais).”
Lambert had been active in the Paysans/Travailleurs (Peasants/Workers) movement in Nantes. On May 6th of that year, the Paysans/Travailleurs activists “were responsible for organizing the march of some 100,000 people, mostly farmers, in villages throughout Brittany and the Loire-Atlantique with the slogan ‘The West Wants to Live.’” Soon afterwards, their efforts culminated in the establishment of a Commune de Nantes—an alliance of farmers, workers and students. All in all, Lambert and his fellow activists were insisting that farmers should not be playing second fiddle to the urban workers; the paysan had a distinct and important role to play as a “defender of the earth.”
Ross argues that the language of “defense” (in western France in 1968, in the area outside Tokyo in 1966, in the Larzac in the 1970s and, in what I read as an astonishing connection, in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the US) is a far more powerful one than the more favored and very current language of “resistance.” She writes:
Resistance means that the battle, if there ever was one, has already been lost and we can only try helplessly to resist the overwhelming power the other side now wields. Defending, on the other hand, means that there is already something on our side that we possess, that we value, that we cherish, and that is thereby worth fighting for (emphases in original).
Relying on her use of “communal luxury” to characterize the efforts of the communards in 1871 to invent new ways of understanding and appreciating value (as something quite different from “exchange value”), Ross argues that new ways of thinking about what is valuable can allow us to mount a far more effective struggle against the continuing globe-wide efforts to impose austerity on the many for the transfer of wealth to the few:
By designating something that had no value before in the existing hierarchy of value to be of value and worth defending one is not calling for equivalence or justice within an existing system like the market (as in an austerity regime or in the demand for fairer distribution). One is not calling for one’s fair share in the existing division of the pie. Communal luxury means that everyone has a right not just to his or her share, but to his or her share of the best (emphasis in original). The designation calls into question the very ways in which prosperity is measured, what it is that a society recognizes and appreciates, what it considers wealth.
Along with new understandings of what is valuable, participants in long-term struggles acquire an additional appreciation that what must be defended are also their new forms of social connectedness and their new collective relationship to the environment.
Ross suggests that long-term occupations of land can lead to situations of dual power—in which the power of the state to control is challenged by the emergence of new organizational forms that make the state “redundant” and allow participants to acquire new abilities to manage affairs. The Commune de Nantes provides a thrilling example of those possibilities. After the Sud-Aviation workers occupied their factory, thereby launching the nationwide general strike in May, local farmers provided free food to the strikers. A central strike committee was established in the Nantes town hall. It glowingly called itself “The Central Committee for Managing Daily Life.” What’s central for Ross in moments like this is that the power comes from “the direct initiative of the people from below.”
Ross is not the first one to celebrate the profound importance of dual power moments but I think that she manages to do something new in her analysis of them. She relies on the notion of “composition”—the unexpected alliances that make up new social groups. In the case of zad:
Composition is the mark of a massive investment in organizing life in common without the exclusions in the name of ideas, identities or ideologies so frequently encountered in radical milieu.
…. Composition is a space or process where even antagonisms create an attachment. “Composition” could be said to be the way that autonomous forces unite and associate with each other, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes contradicting each other, but always, in the end, dependent on each other. When it works, these different elements strive to recognize each other and work together to pursue common desires that surpass each of them, rather than trying to resolve these differences.
For Ross, these instances of “communes in becoming” should not be seen as isolated islands of self-absorption. Instead, as the great anarchist geographer, Elise Reclus, wrote: “In our plan for existence and struggle, it isn’t a chapel of like-minded companions that interests us—it’s the entire world in its entirety.”
It’s been a long time since someone had so much to offer in the way of something new about the possibilities of revolutionary politics—we owe Kristin Ross much thanks for having done so.