Thinking Back On May 68

[First published in Zeta Magazine, May 1988]


France is commemorating the twentieth anniversary of May 68 with a certain nostalgia and pride. However it may be interpreted, the massive French revolt of May 1968 quickly became the symbol of an era. The "events", featuring an ephemeral revolution at the Sorbonne and the biggest general strike in French history, marked the last time that Paris could claim to be the center of the world.


That position was usurped from countless other places where far more dramatic events were happening, first of all from Vietnam. In that year of the Tet offensive, it was the Vietnamese being torn from their grass hiding places by flames and bayonets that fired revolt all over the world.


In 1967, French leftists organized Vietnam committees whose activities prepared the ground for May 68. The Trotskyists drew in well-known intellectuals on the national and even international level, while the Maoists concentrated on neighborhood organizing. The extreme right "Occident" mounted physical attacks, and the leftists prepared to fight back. Incidents concerning Vietnam led to the overkill police repression that inflamed the Latin Quarter in the early days of May. Ironically, a key reason the French government clamped down so excessively on the pro-Vietnam activists may well have been to prove Paris’ fitness as a neutral and orderly capital for the peace talks that were opening there between the Americans and the Vietnamese.


The issue of the Vietnam War was uniquely ambiguous and complex in France. President Charles de Gaulle had recently taken France out of NATO and, in a resounding speech in Phnom Penh, clearly marked his distance from the American war. After defying the far right in order to make peace in Algeria, de Gaulle granted at least nominal independence to most of the rest of France’s colonial possessions in Africa and embarked on a policy of friendly relations with the Third World. Unlike other Western leaders, de Gaulle was not particularly hostile to the movement in support of Vietnam, as long as its targets were the Americans or even the French Communist Party (PCF), criticized for being too lukewarm in its support of Third World revolution.


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 Latin Quarter was besieged in the "night of the barricades". All night, students around the Pantheon calmly built barricades, passing the paving stones from hand to hand with the same gestures seen on the 16-millimeter films shown by Vietnam committees, of Vietnamese peasant women rebuilding bombed dikes.


The next day, the streets were cluttered with debris from the police charge. The Latin Quarter was occupied by rows of armed CRS, and students who had been apolitical a few days before wandered in a new landscape, transformed into an oppressed people with an occupation army to overthrow.


Paris was nearly the last student population in the world to get into the spirit of the times. But such was the mystique of Paris, capital of revolution, that it was only when students in Milan or Berlin heard of the Paris events that they thought something truly momentous was happening. Many set out on pilgrimage for Paris heedless of transport strikes and gasoline shortages, to join the revolution in the Sorbonne.


Twenty years later, May 68 seems to have left fewer traces in France than in those other countries where it was seen as a beacon. There are many reasons for this, some to be found in the complex and ambiguous political situation of Gaullist France at that time. The very suddenness and size of the explosion caused problems (1) of interpretation and (2) of countermeasures. France has a history of heavy lids alternatively clamped down and blown off by social explosions. Once again, the French state wielded the carrots of reform and the stick of police brutality to normalize society before the rebels could work out what it was they wanted.


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 Vietnam to a more familiar state, in a city where the living is easy and the graceful façades are steeped in historic and literary memories. When it came to acting out revolution, Paris students had the advantage of a national tradition – May 68 was no orphan, but part of the line running from 1789 to 1830 to 1848, and above all through the Paris Commune of 1871. "The Student Commune" was the title of philosopher Edgar Morin’s glowing essay opening the most widely noted of the shelf-load of books that appeared in shops more quickly than the streets could be repaved: La Brèche.


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 Paris, whose gentrification (sponsored by de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux) was still in the planning stages. The Marais was something of a Maoist stronghold. The Vietnam Comités de Base were out in the markets every Sunday morning, with dazibao and photographs of the war, selling earnest tracts on people’s war. The Maoist leadership in the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure located in the rue d’Ulm stayed clear of the student revolt and even regarded it as a bourgeois plot – an attitude shared by many of their arch adversaries in the PCF, where the suspicion still smolders that MAY 68 was a CIA plot to bring down de Gaulle and install a more pro-American government. (According to Maurice Grimaud, this suspicion was shared by the French government, which publicly accused East Germany but privately suspected the CIA of subsidizing the Trotskyists to weaken the pro-Moscow PCF.)


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 Nanterre starring sociologist Alain Touraine’s notoriously impertinent student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit – incidents that led to the police occupation of the Sorbonne and random clubbing of passers-by that touched off the incredible May escalation.


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 Latin Quarter students found themselves on the morning after the night of the barricades enlisting in "The Revolution", the vast majority were literally rebels without a cause – yet. One simple lesson struck everyone: the lesson of sudden, total change: revolution can happen.


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. France since May 68 has seen a drastic decline of political thinking, other than the very specialized sort practiced by the small (and brilliant) professional political class.


The sociological explanation has triumphed largely as a result of the unadaptability of the contending political explanations. Alain Touraine calls May 68 "new wine in old bottles". Karl Marx, he recalls, was very hard on the Paris Commune. The Communards used the exalted language of the 1789 Revolution, unaware that the future was with the labor movement, which they rejected. In May 68, the students, not realizing that they themselves were the new agent for social change, insisted on bringing out the workers, who were much weaker than they were, and who "used the language of the previous century".


Touraine’s old student Daniel Cohn-Bendit agrees that May was "a mix between the last revolution of the nineteenth century and a completely new movement that raised the problems of the end of the twentieth".


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 France


Barricades are a Paris revolutionary tradition. The act of piling up paving stones reawakened historic memories, and, confirmed by the massive strikes, revived the old notion of France as the revolutionary country par excellence.


But even as it attracted the attention of the world, the May movement looked inward, turning its back on the Third World in its effort to unfold revolution according to national patterns. This was the start of the loss of interest in the Third World that soon ruined Maspéro (along with "revolutionary" shop-lifting supposed to punish the publisher for "exploiting" the subjects he published books about, unlike all those other publishers only interested in making money). It is significant that La Joie de Lire was sold to Nouvelles Frontières, a budget travel agency. The sixties trips to Algeria, Cuba, China and even California in search of revolutionary models gave way to vacations in warm climates, period.


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 France because of the peculiarly French rejection of pragmatism and demand for an overall political project or ideology as context for even the slightest action.


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 France he continued his revolt in the more congenial Frankfurt scene. If it took May 68 to "modernize" France, oddly the French left itself was not modernized, as is attested to by the shallowness of the peace, ecology and women’s movements. However, the French left is more "modern" than it was before in a way dear to the hearts of most sociological analysts: it has a much smaller and weaker Communist Party.


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 Vincennes, the experimental campus that admitted working class students without diplomas and allowed leftist professors to teach what they wanted. Glucksmann and company did not destroy "the bourgeois university and the power of the bourgeoisie", but their disruptions did contribute to destroying the faculty of Vincennes.


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 Guatemala in 1968, Michèle Firk shot herself through the head as the police were battering down her door. Of the success stories, the most spectacular is former Maoist Serge July, who eventually turned the newspaper he was assigned to run by the Gauche Prolétarienne into the fashionably successful Libération. July told Hamon and Rotman that 1968 was a "change of planet". France went from a "culturally rural society to an urban society – with the barrricde as the symbol between them separating two worlds".


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 Latin Quarter shortly before police violence sparked the May events, became cabinet ministers in 1986 in the government of Jacques Chirac.


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 Vincennes, to be harassed by their more revolutionary colleagues. A few years ago, authority was reasserted. Today, the university in France is arguably worse than ever.


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:


Western Civilization


Early Modern Through the 20th Century


Fifth Edition, Volume II


1989, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guilford, Connecticut 06437

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