Contents Disappointed Utopia 1. Radical Philosophy After 1968

May 68: The revolution became immediate

Just what was May 1968? In short, it was a mass movement that produced a proto-revolutionary episode.[1] It was a moment of far left rebellion at once against the Gaullist state and against the French Communist Party. It is slightly misnamed, since the “events” continued well into June. It was a generation-making moment for many of its participants, and a locus classicus for student protests in subsequent years.[2] As students occupied university campuses, notably the Sorbonne at the heart of Paris, they were driven out and assaulted by the riot police. They built barricades out of cobblestones, got hit with police nightsticks, and got radicalized by the experience of violence. Some nine million workers went on strike, often in spite of their own union leadership (Ross 2002:3). An avalanche of radical zines, statements and manifestos were written; normal life in Paris went on hold; and artists’ workshops produced zany slogans and posters that lingered afterwards in the global culture of the left. “It is forbidden to forbid.” “All power to the imagination.” “The more I make love, the more I want to make the Revolution, the more I make the Revolution, the more I want to make love.”

In this period of anticolonial revolution and U.S.-Soviet confrontation, revolution organized the global political horizon. Like “emancipation,” perhaps, revolution is now a difficult object for us (post-Cold War Anglophones), because it has come to feel so mediated, hyperbolized and implausible (Ross 2002:20). For much of the Global North, revolutions are now for the Other (the Arab Spring), the Past (of 1776, 1789), or the domain of Empty Metaphor (Industrial Revolution, Digital Revolution). What is now unthinkable for us, however, became plausible through street activism at the time. The protests emerged partly from an anti-imperialist internationalism that was then popular among French radicals.

The May events have to be understood as an episode in the history of decolonization, capitalist modernization, and the global left imagination, as Kristin Ross has emphasized. “Vietnam made possible a merging of the themes of anti-imperialism and anticapitalism… All revolutionaries are involved in the same struggle” (Ross 2002:80). The May events themselves were sequels to protests that March at Nanterre, a banlieue university campus built in 1964 alongside a largely North African shantytown (bidonville) west of Paris. In its physical gloom and left effervescence, Nanterre set a model for left-wing Parisian universities with ambivalent relations to the banlieue. French student radicalism at the time was focused on decolonization struggles, not on urban discrimination in Paris. Consider how a Trotskyist student, Daniel Bensaïd, who later became a beloved Marxist professor at Paris 8, recalled this experience.

While lining up in the Nanterre corridors, waiting to hear Mikel Dufrenne on the transcendental aesthetic, we had our heads elsewhere. The newspaper headlines announced the death of Che in Bolivia. We were incredulous and couldn’t accept it. A myth is immortal. But we still scrutinised in perplexity the photos of his Christ-like corpse, seeking in vain for false evidence in the curve of the forehead or the shape of the beard. His tragedy was ours.[3]
Nanterre-la-Folie well deserved its name. The press of the time often described the muddy no man’s land of the campus, wedged between the shantytowns photographed by Élie Kagan during the Algerian war and the HLM public housing blocks, still thin on the ground. The shack that served as a station looked like the ramshackle railway depots of the American West, lost at the edge of the desert. Once on the campus, you spent the day in cafes, dining halls and dormitories,[4] without bothering much with the lectures. One [activist] meeting followed another…
[Bensaïd 2013:295, 299–300]

This global consciousness had an exclusively masculine range of references, as its male participants were crushed by the loss of Guevara, their revolutionary hero.[5] A left activist like Bensaïd noticed the existence of racialized shantytowns and public housing, but hurried past them to fixate on activist meetings in closed campus spaces. He could take ownership of campus space, physically defending its “(almost) free territory” and placing masculine combativeness at the heart of radicality. Historians note that the women’s and gay liberation movements emerged soon afterwards as reactions to this heteromasculine radicalism.

Radical masculinity was equally on display when protests began in March 1968. On March 20, the American Express building in central Paris was smashed up to protest the Vietnam War. Four protesters were arrested: they “became martrys, and tempers flared” (Jackson, Milne and Williams 2011:7). On March 22, Nanterre students occupied an administration building, protesting administrative “paternalism.” Theirs was a politically diverse movement from the start, as its most famous organizer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, recalled. “There were the unorganized, people who had never done politics before, the left Catholics, the libertarians, the Trotskyists…” (Dreyfus-Armand and Cohn-Bendit 1988:124). Cohn-Bendit became an international symbol of the movement. He embodied its countercultural masculinity in his person. In 1968, he explained, he lived “in tribal fashion” with some fellow anarchists, was “very beatnik-y,” and was influenced by German and American student activism. Although raised in France, he was a German citizen, and at the height of the 1968 movement, the French authorities barred him from re-entering the country.

Figure 12: Barricades at night, May 11, 1968. Sketch based on a photo by Guy Kopelowicz.
Figure 12: Barricades at night, May 11, 1968. Sketch based on a photo by Guy Kopelowicz.

Cohn-Bendit soon slipped back into France, but his ambiguous Germanness facilitated a nationalist counterreaction, as the Gaullist authorities blamed the events on outsiders. “The proportion of foreigners who were detained is startling… The police continually blamed the events in Paris on a conspiracy of foreign revolutionaries” (Jobs 2011:237). Nevertheless, the events rapidly grew beyond anyone’s expectations. On May 2, the Nanterre campus was closed altogether. Students moved back to central Paris, and were arrested in large numbers while occupying the Sorbonne. The confrontations escalated: by 6 May, 600 protesters had been wounded, along with 350 police. On May 7, police tear gas faced protesters’ Molotov cocktails, as 50,000 marched against police brutality. May 10 became known as the “Night of the Barricades.” May 13 saw more than a million protesters march through Paris. Workers went on strike on May 14 at a Sud Aviation plant, and by May 17, 200,000 workers were on strike. A week later, the Paris Stock Exchange was set on fire. In a major concession to striking workers, the minimum wage was raised by 35%. Yet the movement was widely felt to come to an end on May 30, as a mass pro-Gaullist march took back the streets of Paris. Strikes and protests continued for weeks afterwards, but De Gaulle dissolved parliament and retained power.

Still, many French activists lived this period as a moment where the revolution seemed to become immediate. Earlier in the 1960s, French radical philosophers had argued that “revolution was not on the agenda,” and that the task was to prepare for a revolutionary moment yet to come (Vermeren 1995:5). But in 1968, there was a sudden, collective sense that the revolution was on the verge of happening, or indeed actually happening. “YES, STUDENTS AND YOUNG PEOPLE, WE CAN BE A GREAT REVOLUTIONARY FORCE,” announced a Communist pamphlet on May 13, 1968. “Let us sweep aside purely academic reformist watchwords, and the revisionists’ and social-democrats’ little groups, which are teaming up to try to bar the way of the popular masses, the way of the revolution!” declared the Maoist group UJCML on May 7.[6] The violent confrontations with the police, in particular, seemed to create a sense that revolution was imminent.

The consciousness underlying this revolutionary frenzy was inevitably partial, and it was limited by its own blindness to race and gender.

  1. For general Anglophone overviews of the May events, see Jackson, Milne and Williams 2011, Ross 2002, Feenberg and Freedman 2001.  ↩

  2. While May 1968 in France became a locus classicus of global student politics, I must also insist that there is nothing “intrinsic” to the French events of May 1968 that made it deserve that status; it is rather that French politics have remained a particular site of post-imperial mythmaking, while for instance Senegalese, Mexican, or Polish protests the same year have been relatively neglected (e.g. Blum 2012).  ↩

  3. Cette tragédie était la nôtre. I have included this suggestive sentence from the French edition; it was inexplicably omitted from the English translation.  ↩

  4. I have modified the published translation here slightly to better link French to U.S. university jargon.  ↩

  5. To his credit, Bensaïd later acknowledged in his memoirs the feminist critique of his youthful macho radicalism (Bensaïd 2013:810–813, Vinteuil 1976).  ↩

  6. Texts reprinted in Perrot et al. 1968:31, 68.  ↩

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