[Marxism] Diana Johnstone on May '68

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 14 07:19:21 MDT 2008

(From David Thorstad)

Diana Johnstone
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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