Thinking Back On May 68
[First published in Zeta Magazine, May 1988]
[First published in Zeta Magazine, May 1988]
That position was usurped from countless other places where far more dramatic events were happening, first of all from
In 1967, French leftists organized
The issue of the Vietnam War was uniquely ambiguous and complex in
Domestic political complexity was compounded by the presence of a diehard colonialist far right which, whatever satisfaction it might derive from watching the Americans lose a war the French could not win, nevertheless hated Charles de Gaulle above all for throwing away the French Empire.
The revolt broke out on May 3 after police entered the sanctuary of the Sorbonne and arrested leftist leaders. In the streets, police charged. Some ran for cover. Some fought back. After several days of violent skirmishes between growing groups of students and baton-wielding security policy (CRS…"CRS SS!"), on May 10 the entire
The next day, the streets were cluttered with debris from the police charge. The
Twenty years later, May 68 seems to have left fewer traces in
To a certain extent, no explanation was needed. Students of the sixties had not yet been enslaved by fear of unemployment and felt free to care about the world for its own sake, to express indignation at the brutality of power with a freshness hard to recall after the moral ravages of the seventies "me" generation and the greedy eighties meanness of Reaganism.
But French students suddenly found themselves leading a revolt bigger than Che Guevara’s, yet with much less obvious raison d’être. The spectacle of a world in upheaval was momentarily shifted from the sweaty tangle of the jungles of
May 68 fell into a political context where it was instantly interpreted and utilized for particularly French purposes.
Contrary to the media images, street battles were marginal to the feeling of May 68, which was definitely "make love not war". The casualties were light and nobody resorted to firearms. The chief of Paris Police at the time, Maurice Grimaud, credits himself and Alain Krivine, the Trotskyist leader whose organization’s service d’ordre still protects left-wing demonstrations from far right attacks, for keeping the war dance within certain bounds.
I was living at the time in the Marais section of
The Maoists stayed far from the street battles so cherished by international news photo agencies. In the Marais, their Vietnam Committees rapidly turned into Action Committees making the revolution in community workplaces. In cultural workplaces like schools and libraries, employees everywhere were going on strike, reorganizing their own work, which often needed it. This was by far the most interesting development of the May movement, the practical basis for the seventies faith in autogestion, or self-management, but totally out of the international spotlight focused on policemen’s clubs and burning cars. The Maoists’ proudest achievement in the Marais was to get parents and teachers at a local nursery school to dismiss the "racist" director and admit a dozen North African children who had been excluded.
Sociology Defeats Politics
Two sorts of tension existed in the Paris student milieu leading up to May 68: a political tension carried by the Trotskyist or pro-Chinese dissident offshoots from the PCF’s student union where a Stalinist backlash had driven out the "pro-Italian" (influenced by the Italian Communist Party) leadership in the wake of Khrushchev’s fall, and a social tension stemming from the disorientation of students in a university unable to adapt from its old elitism to cope with the influx of masses from the middle class. These tensions were entangled, notably in incidents at
Still, one can venture to say that without the spark provided by CRS billy-clubs, those tensions might have remained marginal or simply a matter of routine grumbling. When thousands of
Political groups and sociologists were immediately on the scene to explain to the rebels what they were rebelling about, and political and sociological explanations have vied with each other ever since. At a distance of twenty years, one can say that from the start, the sociological explanation benefited from endorsement by prestigious intellectuals and the most respected journals, and that it has easily won acceptance as the major factor. More than that, sociology in general has won out over politics in the twenty years since May 68, to the point where political behavior risks becoming a minor category of sociological observation.
The sociological explanation has triumphed largely as a result of the unadaptability of the contending political explanations. Alain
It is certainly true that the revolutionary projects championed by the contending Leninist vanguard groups, of which Krivine’s Communist Revolutionary League and short-lived Maoist Gauche Prolétarienne were the most influential, were remarkably anachronistic and unsuited to a contemporary advanced industrial society. But it is also true, as Edgar Morin wrote in his article on "The Student Commune", that "workerism, far from dividing the movement as one might have thought, provided the ideology enabling it to self-justify its cultural struggle (for a university open to the people) and its political struggle (for a people’s state)".
"Workerism" was unifying insofar as it expressed an essential generosity of the sixties revolt, the students’ demand for equality not only for themselves but, even more, for others. The sociologists who consider this a mistake are only partly right. It is right that the student revolutionaries, awed by the presumed revolutionary role of the working class, often had trouble realizing who they were and what their own social power could be. But their failure to think only of their own interests, if sociologically a mistake, was politically correct.
In a few days, the student revolt touched off the biggest strikes in French history. Some nine million employees went on strike, shutting down the country and bringing the seemingly solid regime of General de Gaulle to the brink of collapse. These heady happenings suggested to the participants that purely spontaneous individual self-assertion might miraculously merge in a unanimity called Revolution.
While the Communist-led General Confederation of Labor (CGT) worked with the government on an agreement to get the workers back on the job before they could be further contaminated, the fact of the massive strikes rekindled the French students’ interest in their own working class as a potential "revolutionary subject". For prior to May, it was understood from the vantage point of François Maspéro’s well-furnished bookstore La Joie de Lire in the rue Saint Sévérin that the contemporary front lines of the world revolution were in the imperialist periphery, in Vietnam or Latin America, and certainly not in France.
Cobblestones to Modernize
Barricades are a
But even as it attracted the attention of the world, the May movement looked inward, turning its back on the
But in May 68, as Edgar Morin observed, an "osmosis" occurred between the "existential libertarian exigency" of some and the "planetary politicization" of the others. The world seemed to be coming together politically when it was in fact falling apart. The seventies were, of course, marked by the total fragmentation of leftist movements in all the developed countries, but this was most destructive in
According to the sociological explanation, French society had lagged behind its own economic development, and May 68 was a sort of cultural revolution led by the younger generation to catch up.
Yet one of the peculiarities of the French May revolt, noted by foreign contemporaries, was the absence of the cultural, or counter-cultural aspects prevalent in other Western countries. The emblematic figure of Daniel Cohn-Bendit can be deceptive: thrown out of
The hatred of French intellectuals for the French Communist Party has been an obsession overflowing political categories. Hatred for the PCF comes from right, left, and center. A specialist in the matter, Cornelius Castoriadis, writing under the name of Jean-Marc Coudray in La Breche, explained why: the PCF is "neither reformist nor revolutionary". The PCF’s revolutionary language provides long-range hopes for its apparatus, consoles the working class, and gets in the way of modern social democratic reforms.
"Prisoner of its past, the Stalinist bureaucratic apparatus is incapable, in France as almost everywhere, of turning the corner that would allow it in theory to play a new role. Not, certainly, a revolutionary role, but the role of the great modern reformist bureaucracy needed for the functioning of French capitalism, which has been recommended to it for years by volunteer advisors, knowledgeable sociologists, and subtle technicians", Castoriadis wrote.
In 1968, both Maoist revolutionaries and budding technocrats saw the youth revolt as a blessed historic opportunity to snatch the working class from the clutches of the PCF. The PCF needed to be destroyed in order "to make the revolution" or conversely to modernize French capitalism. Mortal hatred for the PCF was an often unspoken but crucial element unifying the most politicized of May 68 leaders, even if they disagreed on almost everything else.
There was, after all, a basic difference between those who wanted to take over leadership of the working class and those who rejoiced to see a new "revolutionary subject", or at least a new social category, replacing the working class as the key to historic change.
The second interpretation was suggested in the title of the widely-read book La Breche. An historic "breach" or "breakthrough" had opened up. Castoriadis was ecstatic: "whatever comes next, May 68 has opened a new period in universal history."
This extravagant appraisal of the significance of May 68 was by no means unusual. The exaltation of May’s spontaneity by established intellectuals like Castoriadis, who in many respects are themselves anything but spontaneous, was a way of celebrating the relegation of the PCF and its bureaucracy to the ashcan of history. Castoriadis perceived an explosion of creativity, "brilliant, effective and poetic slogans surged from the anonymous crowd", teachers were astonished to discover that they knew nothing and their students knew everything. "In a few days, twenty-year olds achieved political understanding and wisdom honest revolutionaries haven’t yet reached after thirty years of militant activity." Did this stupefying miracle really take place? It was hailed in any case: for, if innocent youth could rise from its tabula rasa and make the revolution, there was obviously no need for a structured organization like the Communist Party.
There was immense joy among intellectuals at discovering a new revolutionary subject close to themselves. Castoriadis announced that in modern societies youth is a category more important than the working class, which has become a dead weight on revolution.
But could spontaneous youth actually make the revolution? Even as he was extolling the glorious "explosion", Castoriadis pointed to its limits. "If the revolution is nothing but an explosion of a few days or weeks, the established order (know it or not, like it or not) can accommodate itself very well. Even more, contray to its belief, it ahs a profound need for it. Historically it is the revolution that permits the world of reaction to survive by transforming itself, by adapting," he observed. The outcome could be "new forms of oppression better adapted to today’s conditions".
These words unfortunately proved more prophetic for post-May 68 France than Castoriadis’ recommendations on how to organize the revolution: "In the conditions of the modern world, getting rid of dominant and exploiting classes requires not only the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, but also the elimination of the division between those who give orders and those who carry them out as social strata. Consequently, the movement combats that division wherever it finds it, and does not accept it inside the movement itself. For the same reason, it combats hierarchy in all its forms."
The trouble with this advice is that, taken to extremes, it tends to turn the movement in on itself, destructively. When it comes to combating "hierarchy" and "authority" wherever they are found, it soon emerges that they are most easily found close to home: in the university, at school, in the left itself. In places far enough down the ladder to be close at hand. The real powers running the world were not seriously disturbed by all this turmoil and this combat was not always carried out with discernment.
After May 68, Raymond Aron’s former assistant André Glucksmann became the theoretician of a "Grassroots Committee for the Abolition of Wage-Earning and the Destruction of the University". Abolishing wage-earning was a bit too much even for geniuses destined to become "new philosophers". But as for destroying the university, they could get to work right where they were, at the faculty of
A few seasons later, Glucksmann discovered the Gulag and Pol Pot and began to sound like somebody raving about Raymond Aron’s lessons on totalitarianism in the midst of a feverish nightmare. When last heard of, he was defending the necessity of a nuclear arms buildup.
A recent monumental two-volume work by Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération (published by Seuil), traces the personal histories of a number of the main actors of the period from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Some worked, suffered and even died for their revolutionary ideal. In
If July has done well, those who were on the other side of the barricades in May 68 have done even better. Alain Madelin and Gérard Longuet, in 1968 leaders of the far right organization Occident whose attacks on supporters of the Vietnamese cause heated the atmosphere of the
May attained none of its proclaimed goals. There was no revolution, and the reforms – as of the university – served mainly to contain the ferment by isolating leftists in playgrounds like the faculty of
Hierarchies are so firmly in place that the left’s greatest aspiration is to re-elect its patriarch, François Mitterrand.
Serge July epitomizes the successful few who are consoled for these failures by the spectacular entrance on stage of the new class nicknamed "young urban professionals". The revolt against the most immediate authorities – father, mother, teacher, trade union – has given the individualistic educated middle class more elbow room to pursue its personal pleasures, interests, and careers. This liberation has not been accompanied by any sustained interest in the more distant power structures that continue to dominate the world and that Marxism at its best attempted to understand and combat.
The lid is back on. But will it stay put?
This article was republished in:
Early Modern Through the 20th Century
Fifth Edition, Volume II
1989, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc.,