[Marxism] Diana Johnstone on May '68
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 14 07:19:21 MDT 2008
(From David Thorstad)
THINKING BACK ON MAY 68
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
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:
Early Modern Through the 20th Century
Fifth Edition, Volume II
1989, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guilford, Connecticut 06437
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