Two Letters on the Uprising in France

Up until quite recently, writing letters was a primary means of transmitting experience, and specifically gave the revolutionary tradition a sense of vitality. In an attempt to restore something of this practice of letter writing among planetary comrades and friends, the international journal Liaisons gathered theorizations and analyses from ongoing struggles in a recently published book, In the Name of the People (Common Notions), and launched a Correspondence section on its website. In what follows, they share an excerpt from a letter they received last week from Paris, as well as a letter to the French from their friend Alexey Samoedov, which summarizes some lessons learned during the Ukrainian uprising at Maidan in 2014. This last letter also recently appeared on the French news site Lundi Matin. Maidan and its aftermath are explored in more detail in “A Very Long Winter,” a text included in In the Name of the People.

Letter from Paris

For a few weeks now, a fluid movement that started through opposition to yet another fuel tax has been underway. It’s hardly necessary to include a list of neoliberal reforms, as no one is still unaware of the cost of these “structural adjustments.” There’s barely a need to give an account of the state of French ecological systems and their destruction, as everyone already knows that the world is on fire. When it comes to the forces that have traditionally been able to resist and oppose such facts, it’s enough to say they are now in ashes. But now, from the old colonies to the metropolis, escaping the grasp of the parties, the unions, and all traditional political analysis, an unprecedented wave of blockades and riots has been born. The official rhetoric is simple. It consists of a movement of simple people, more or less xenophobic racists, rednecks, and a frightened middle class. This rhetoric is shared by a significant part of the left, who accuses the Yellow Vests of not corresponding to the political categories and definitions that would truly comprise an emancipation. “Dear comrade, you have been trapped by the real.” To them, it somehow makes sense to oppose the Yellow Vests to the ecologists (did you know that cars cause pollution?) and the feminists, who on the 24th of November held a march to protest violence against women. But what pathological need would there be to think of these “Yellow Vests” in such an oppositional way? Is it because they make demands in the name of the “people” and not the working class? Is it because they sometimes wave the French flag instead of the standard black and red? As if the Internationale, the folklore of the Commune, autonomy or Leninism were not empty shells, worn out discourses like dry, eroded earth on which there is nothing to cultivate because it has been worked over and over so much.

Analyses abound. “It’s an interclass movement,” say the Marxists. “This movement has oppressors,” say others. “This movement has a penchant for authoritarianism and populism,” say the anarchists. “This movement is anti-ecological,” say the environmentalists. “This is a conservative tax revolt,” mostly everyone agrees. Yet whoever satisfies themselves with their political ideology is condemned to perish. This is the terrible lesson of the twenty-first century.

Everyone who was present on Saturday, the 24th of November, knows these idiotic oppositions don’t hold. The very gesture of wanting to bring down the presidential Palace contains within it the positive affirmation of wanting to bring the ravaged state of this world to an end. This an observation shared by all the ecologists and feminists, whose eyes are open toward the horizon. Who seriously believes the Yellow Vests blockade the entirety of France for just one reason?

For ten hours, tens of thousands of people tried to break through the police barricades to get to the Elysée Palace, the Parisian fortress that runs France. Not only the Champs-Elysées but also all the side streets were invaded, at times up to a kilometer in all directions. Each intersection had its own barricade in flames.

Who knows what treasures we would have discovered in the presidential Palace if the thousands of protestors blocked by the forces of order at the city’s outskirts had been able to join us? If they hadn’t attacked with 5,000 tear gas canisters and three water cannons over the course of ten hours in the same avenue, who knows what might have happened?

The Yellow Vests are disparate. Some applaud the police, while others hate them. Some denounce immigrants, while others express their solidarity. Most survive, and it’s from there that we must start. On Saturday, the 24th of November, it became clear to everyone that the police were the principal obstacle. A keen observer would have seen dubious banners waving, but also journalists harassed for calling the Yellow Vests a far-right movement, anti-fascist slogans, and, more modestly, a veritable anger and anguish for a future that, in the Anthropocene, crosses all lines.

At the national scale, since the 17th of November, blockades of highways, malls, tax offices, toll booths, traffic circles, oil storage depots, and refineries have continued, in the hundreds, day after day. This regime of action can’t last long-term, but it proves to be the serious part of the movement and its possible developments. A call to retake the Champs-Elysées on the 1st of December now circulates widely. It is certain that power won’t again let the crowd so close to its doors. Perhaps it will be bloodier, in search of an impossible stability.

Almost a century ago, Kafka said: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms. The first does it to signify harmony, the second to signify strife with the elements.” A time has come in which the ecstasy of the human being is a drowning. It is profound, unfathomable, and certain. We return to conflict with elements that inundate, hurricane, tornado, burn, and desertify, just like that which also takes place inside us. Each day laws, dictators, and tyrants triumph. Installed for planetary austerity, they are the final possible measure of a capitalism enraptured by its own force of self-destruction. Who will have the force to rise up?

From Maidan to Paris

The joyful festival that seized the Champs-Elysées on the 24th of November resurfaced on Saturday the 1st of December in the biggest riot that Paris has seen since 1968. Who knows if the events brought to life by the Yellow Vest movement could take the form of an insurrectionary movement in the weeks to come? At the same time, however, the confusion that marks our time spreads within the movement itself. While the national press is busy rambling on about the unreasonableness of the Yellow Vests for having welcomed “thugs” into the movement, the crassest elements of the far-right are trying to appropriate its momentum, the left of the unions gets timidly involved, and a certain autonomous milieu—however revolutionary it may be—doesn’t know how to relate to a phenomenon that exceeds it. Meanwhile, dubious flags fly under a haze of gas and at the barricades, and songs from a sordid history ring out, bringing many people to question the movement’s direction and the relevance of expressing solidarity with it. Indeed, we attest to the fascist forces organizing, flowering, and gaining importance both physically and discursively in the media, which all bears a strong resemblance to the last insurrectionary situation witnessed in Europe.

The last major uprising in Europe crystallized in the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and resulted in the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych. As a powerful neighbor, Russia also used the situation to start a more or less low-intensity war between the two countries. Because of their opaque character, which complicates any ideological reading one might make of them, in some ways the Ukrainian events resonate with the French context of the last weeks. Alexey Samoedov’s text, “A Very Long Winter,” shows how national myths and imaginaries were mobilized and transformed at Maidan, destabilizing a large part of the left and resulting in its distance from the insurrection. Let’s not make the same mistake. We have asked Alexey to briefly summarize some lessons learned from Maidan. What follows is his response.

Lessons from Maidan

Maidan sheds a strangely familiar light on the current situation in France. As it seems to be an important issue facing the Yellow Vest movement, it’s useful to begin by addressing the issue of the far right.

First, do not abandon the fight against the fascists so easily. There is a Russian proverb that says, “if you place a spoon of shit into a pot of honey, it becomes a pot of shit.” It’s a principle that seems to guide anarchists and the left in their perception of social movements. They barely see a handful of fascists acting publicly in a movement of several thousand people before they curse everything and return to their homes, mumbling something about the unconscious masses.

Nevertheless, during Maidan, certain events that transpired at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, provide an interesting anecdote. The anarchists had arrived and settled in at the occupation just before the Nazis came. When the fascists showed up and saw banners with anarchist iconography, they returned home, lamenting the fact that the “communists” had taken over the revolution. The proverb goes both ways. I imagine that this mode of operating is useful for a zero-tolerance policy regarding our own spaces and events, but it does not work at the scale of a mass movement.

One must come, see, bear witness and be there. Only then can a decision be made. I know this much is true: the far right’s presence does not mean its hegemony. If such a hegemony exists, it is most often produced by the media’s coverage.

In Maidan, for example, the far right was not a decisive force in the movement, but the images of Nazis at the forefront of the rebellion—an image produced by the Russian media and circulated by some Ukrainian liberals—were so widespread that the Ukrainian right benefited from the situation and still benefits from it today. Moreover, this right also has a large portion of the informational networks of anarchists and the broader left to thank for spreading the same propaganda, which still continues today. The media’s constructions even dominate the narratives of our own comrades. It is a terrible lesson: we can “accidentally” support the right just by spreading the story that fascists have the advantage.

Another important lesson that I learned was the result of a certain feeling of losing my bearings in the situation. We were completely overtaken by the events surrounding us, and activist approaches to the events barely helped. Our little theories were based on assumptions that had nothing to do with what was happening before our eyes. The aspiration to keep the political situation under theoretical control and have a stable explanation for the chain of events that unfolded, which is very characteristic of certain radical groups, is truly paralyzing. Our ideas of the “people” and “normal” behavior became immediately obsolete and it was soon clear that we didn’t know many people outside of our own small circles. Normally, we expect whomever we meet to be a sort of tabula rasa, in such a way that a “political” interaction would consist of combating some ideas and defending others, which, we hope, will allow the ideas that we defend to grow. This seems paternalistic and vanguardist, but I believe that most radicals then thought and still act this way today. At Maidan, most protesters may have had no prior political experience, but they certainly had a political perception of the situation. This was not always clearly articulated, and often changed. The professional politicians barely had any influence over the movement and didn’t define its tactics or agenda. It would be very misleading to want to explain the discourses and the directions of movements by the sole presence of this or that political group. For example, the symbols and slogans that appeared had little to do with their traditional uses, and were continually reinvented. There was no single idea that appeared, circulated, and gained hegemony. Maidan functioned in a much more creative way, and you had to take part in the movement to understand it.

The insurrection was absolutely refreshing and radically open, even to a frightening degree. It was entirely the opposite of the closed and rigid event that certain analyses have made of it. The people around us, even our own comrades, were transformed in brilliant and sometimes surprising ways.

A second aspect that follows from this feeling of losing one’s bearings, of drowning in a flood of events, was the capacity to surpass a pessimism so omnipresent in political circles and realize that much of what we believed to be impossible was, in fact, still possible. If we had been more open to the event from the beginning, we would have perceived these immense possibilities much sooner. Sadly, most radicals (activists, leftists, anarchists, etc.) weren’t ready for the overwhelming scope that such an event could take. In general, they were happy that “something was happening,” without for all that counting on whether the “masses” were acting correctly.

It is difficult to theoretically classify such an event, but one thing is certain: the experience of Maidan changed all of us. It was a radical, open event—like every insurrection, I imagine. This is why I often feel sad when I see texts from revolutionaries that speak of Maidan as just another failed insurrection, just another case of capitalists and the far right profiting off of the deceived masses. Such narratives close off our own histories from us, robbing us of the possibility to perceive them in a totally different way.