avatar
’68 and Now


Tariq Ali just posted an essay, we have put on ZNet, briefly recounting May 68 in France and the period surrounding it.

Tariq’s query, hanging over the whole moving piece, is what happened to us? Where are we? And, more, where are the generations since we acted? Where’s the passion? Where’s the inspiration? Where’s the outrage, the commitment? Where’s the victory- dammit?

These are good questions.

Of course, part of the answer is that there have been many who stayed with the cause, and many others who newly joined, and there have been, as a result, many major victories. But still, I think Tariq is correct, I think, that there hasn’t been remotely the accomplishment that ’68 augured, the delight that ’68 promised. The answers to why we have fallen short, in the past four decades, of what we foresaw while battling in the era of ’68, are obviously complex and multifold. But I should like to propose, very succinctly, a couple of factors what seem to me to be very critical ones – and to be, crucially, ones that have very substantial implications for how we ought to try to now move forward.

Like Tariq I was there, back then, embedded in the events. And like him, I have persisted. Some might think we are, perhaps, a bit psychotic… or at least deviant, in that respect.

So why did so many not persist?

And why haven’t those who have come later attained a comparable and indeed much larger scale of coherent and connected opposition, and not only of opposition, but of positive assertion that is new, original, creative – and victorious?

Most people who seek to answer such questions look at the social relations of the societies we live in – their media and educational systems, their coercive apparatuses, and so on – finding in those abysmal structures obstacles to participation, passion, and insight. And indeed, of course these are relevant factors and they do play a role. But they are what they are…and they do what they do…as we have recounted ad infinitum…and will do, until we change them.

In contrast, causes of the members and children of ’68 not meeting our promise that seem to me far more central to our choices now will be factors over which we had a say, and over which we still have a say, even when we are small and weak. They will be the features of our history which could have been different had we only chosen to to make them different. The reasons for our limited success that matter most now, in other words, are the ones that we can relatively easily correct. They are the factors that caused dissipation which could be corrected and indeed replaced by causes of creation and steadily enlarging activism, merely by a choice that we can make.

Okay, so my two causes – the two factors I want to highlight – the two factors that we can influence any time, by simply deciding to do so –  are these.

People left "the left" because it left them. Likewise, people who later joined, accomplished less than they might have, again because the left let them down, and also because they lacked a fire which in ’68 was fueled by outrage at revealed hypocrisy, by later – when that became old hat, could only have been fueled by hope, by vision, by that which was absent – and likewise many didn’t even bother joining, for that same reason, the lack of belief, hope, direction.

Having been aroused to anger – often to incredible degrees of anger – by discovering, and it was a revelation – the hypocrisy of our world, my generation of ;’68 was then mishandled by our own movement. In essence we mishandled, indeed, I suppose you might say we manhandled, ourselves. Instead of nurturing members’ passion and enriching it, instead of serving members’ needs and fulfilling them, instead of empowering members and making them more confident, more capable, and, yes, happier (all of which happened to some extent, and for some people, and most of those who stayed, by no accident) – our movements, not out of malevolence but out of poor choices of structure and practice, all too often turned our passion to bitterness, narrowed our scope of solidarity and compassion, denied and ridiculed our needs, disempowered most members in their own lives and certainly in social engagement, and made us, yes, miserable, leading to burnout and permanent vacations from the cause. The first problem to be overcome, therefore, if the next forty years are to be more productive than the past forty, is that our movements need to retain members, enrich the lives of members, and make members more committed, more militant, more capable, rather than the opposite – eating our own alive. We must realize that dealing with that problem, with what I like to call the stickiness problem – which is to say making our movement sticky rather than repulsive for its own members – is far far more important than what we spend most of our time doing instead, which is honing and endlessly repeating our critiques of what is bad to the tenth decimal place, and then broadcasting them to the point of finally cementing hopelessness into people’s hearts, rather than desire.

And then, second, there is the vision problem. Thinking about ’68 was one of the ways I came to what are, I agree, my own nearly obsessive views on these matters. I asked myself – okay, self – in ’68 France went from somewhat active and disruptive to virtually tumultuous and nearly revolutionary, in a span of just a month or so. Everywhere there was questioning. More, everywhere there was a spirit not just of resistance but of desire. There was active, militant, creative pursuit of new aims, new goals. What the hell happened?

Well, oversimplifying to  make a point, I said to myself, perhaps what happened, in accord with how we spend so much of our time, is that millions of people who did not understand capitalism, patriarchy, etc. etc., suddenly understood it, and thus, based on this knowledge, became revolutionary. But then I thought, well, if I am honest about it, that seems awfully unlikely, but, okay, let’s say it was the case, consistent with our emphasis, almost exclusively, on constantly analyzing what is wrong. Well then, why did it die, only so little later? Did people’s minds not only very suddenly become far better informed, but then, also, weeks later, revert to ignorance. That’s ridiculous, I thought to myself. No mind fills and empties like that. And so I said, self, what else could it be? And I felt it had to be something like this – people went, rather quickly, from no hope to hope – that’s what fueled the tumult – and then later, the hope left. So the real foundation wasn’t analysis of capitalism or patriarchy per se spreading among folks – important as such analyses can be. The real foundation was people escaping the depression of believing their is no alternative, people escaping from cynicism and into the elation and turmoil and rage and passion of believing there is a better future and that they can help make it happen. And why did it dissipate? Well, without going on and on, mostly because it wasn’t very deep – it was about charisma and boiling stews of emotion and didn’t have sufficient underling comprehension, reason, evidence, information.

If this is true, at least now, four decades after ’68, it seems to me the obstacle to overcome to increase both recruitment and certainly longevity and intensity of movement involvement, is cynicism. The task to doing that, at least to doing it in a way that won;t unravel, is to provide vision of a better future that is compelling, inspiring, and able to inform today’s activism, and that can sustain people having and holding an informed belief that it is worth their valuable and in short supply time to participate.

My answer to Tariq Ali’s query, and I think it is a very optimistic answer because it is within our power to correct it, is that the movements of ’68 and since didn’t win as much as their promise evoked because they were horribly flawed – we were horribly flawed. It is not that we were repressed, or tricked, but that we erred, we made poor choices. And I think people today can do better, much much better, anytime people get around to it. We need only build movements that really do embody the seeds of the future in the present, that really do nurture and train and fulfill their members, sustaining involvement, expanding commitment, movements that really do inspire unyielding but informed involvemen by virtue of their vision and the coherence of their methods, as well.

Leave a comment