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May ’68 in France and the hidden war within the Left

Mitchell Abidor

Platypus Review 109 | September 2018

IN MAY AND JUNE 1968, somewhere around ten million workers were on strike in France. They occupied their factories and marched in the streets, singing the “Internationale” and calling for an end to the ten years of Gaullist rule. Students, too, were on strike, occupying their schools and marching in the streets, singing the “Internationale” and calling for an end to the ten years of Gaullist rule. But popular memory is no less fallible than human memory, and so a poll published in early 2018 in the Nouveau Magazine Littéraire showed that 86% of those polled thought of the events of May ’68 as a student movement. The media, which have been dominated by the baby-boomers, many of whom participated in ’68 and have long focused largely on the student struggle, play a role in this partial amnesia. But this erasing of the workers’ fights is a continuation of a battle that went on fifty years ago during the events between the young and their elders, one that undergirds the ideological differences that tore apart the Left.

For all the surface disputes in May over revolutionary versus reformist demands, between Trotskyism and Stalinism, or anarchism and communism, between the students and the unions—in particular, the French Communist Party (PCF) and their labor union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT)—something else was at play during the six weeks of the events. As I came to see while interviewing participants for May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France (PM Press, 2018), May ’68 was a successful cultural revolt accompanied by a failed political revolt, a militant manifestation of the generation-gap that dominated discourse at the time and was making itself felt throughout the West. And it was this generation-gap within the Left that contributed in no small measure to its political failure.

Outside its borders, the image of France that preceded May ’68 as a sexually liberated society—a society far different from puritanical America—bore little relation to the one actually experienced by the French. This was particularly true for the young, who ironically looked to the U.S. as a place where freedom reigned.

Éliane Paul-Divicenzo, a student in Nantes, told of how a woman’s future was laid out for her while still an undergraduate: “I was at the École Normale of Nantes and we were all given numbers based on our rank in the entrance exam. According to the number we were assigned a pedagogical mother, a pedagogical grandmother, and a pedagogical husband. Every year there was a ball organized by the director and directress of the school so we could meet our future spouse, and normally this was our pedagogical husband. For the ball there was a mass of rules about how we should dress, the distance to be kept between us when we danced, what to say.”

Myriam Chédotal, a high school student in Saint-Nazaire, still shudders when she discusses the hypocritical personal life she had to live: “I was constantly forced to lie, to get around the surrounding hypocrisy, which meant either pretending to conform, and sometimes by insolence or rebellion or lying. Because everyone knew that we were going out with boys, that boys and girls of my age were sleeping together. So, I quickly found myself confronted with lies and the need to lie.”

Jean-Michel Rabaté, a student in Bordeaux in May, echoed this: “You shouldn’t forget just how reactionary and repressive France was. The March 22 Movement—perhaps I’m wrong, but what set it off was when the students at Nanterre wanted to sleep with their girlfriends in the same room. These days this seems normal, but at the time it was strictly forbidden. So, there was this absurd sexual repression, but sexuality was only one element, though the most obvious one.”

It was thanks to May that this hypocrisy, this repression in personal life was swept away. Suzanne Borde, who had been unpolitical before the uprising, was moved to action by the events and participated actively in her neighborhood’s action committee. After it became clear that wide social change was not imminent, she lived on communes before finally resuming her education and becoming an astrophysicist. When I said to her that since May had failed to overturn society, it had achieved nothing concrete, she cut me short: “Sure it did. It completely changed my life.”

There is no question that, as almost every student participant told me, as an outgrowth of May, women achieved the ability to speak out, to have abortions, to access birth control, and to run their lives in their own way. The women’s movement took form. Students were able to shake the magisterial system of education and gain a voice in how their schools would be run. And even though the heavy hand of Gaullism still guided France in the immediate aftermath, it was now a shaky one and would be shed a year later when the people rejected de Gaulle’s proposed restructuring of governance in a referendum. May, then, was a success. The artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who organized the occupation of the Odéon Theater, insisted that May was necessary to get to the point of personal liberation that had already been achieved in the U.S., saying “we really needed it” because it is impossible to “compare the U.S. and old Europe…Capitalism doesn’t function on Wall Street as it does here [in Paris], in London, or in Milan.”

This notion, that May’s success can be measured by the way it liberated the millions of individuals who participated in it (and even those who did not) is a perfectly acceptable way to view it. But if there is anything that the history of the last fifty years has shown us, it is that the sum total of the cultural freedom of millions of individuals does not result in the freeing of society. It does not put an end to racism, to exploitation, and even to forms of repression. The expansion of areas of opportunity, of liberation, as long as they do not touch the core of society’s ills, strengthens the existing order instead of weakening it. In fact, this model of individual liberation is only absolutely accurate if we accept the truth of Margaret Thatcher’s famous “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.” Ironically, in that case, there could be no question of the success of May ’68.

Prisca Bachelet, who helped organize the occupation of the University of Nanterre that would ultimately lead to the events of May, phrased this perfectly, describing the aftermath of May: “[W]hile we assumed intellectual hegemony, we didn’t notice that the bosses were reorganizing and modernizing, that there was new management … We missed the central axes, which leaves us in the situation we’re in.”

Henri Simon, a veteran of Socialisme ou Barbarie, had a more negative perspective: “It was a great confusion. I think that a transformation of mores had been going on for some time because of transformations in the system, and that in the end, ’68 was a mark of that, but it didn’t cause the change. May ’68 smashed forms of control and brought others, it modernized the system. And the restructuring of the capitalist system was happening.”

In France as elsewhere in the West in the 1960s, it was the young who felt most strongly and fought most fiercely against the weights placed on them by the world they were entering. It was from the young around France that sprang the poetic slogans and posters which, along with the barricades, stand as the image of May ’68. “Be Realistic. Demand the impossible.” “Under the paving stones the beach.” Even a young Communist like Dominique Barbe, a high school student in Nantes and member of a party in no sympathy with such slogans, explained to me that, “As a young person it was easy to recognize yourself in slogans like ‘It is forbidden to forbid…’ So as young people we recognized ourselves in these types of demands, in these cultural demands, and we joined in on the basis of these ideas.”

The poll published by the Nouveau Magazine Littéraire revealed that 79% of the French believe that May ’68 had positive consequences, while 83% viewed it as a “social” movement. The workers gained raises and increased union rights, but the liberation of the person flowed from the students’ slogans. The lasting effects of raises and expanded union rights, in popular memory, were small; the changes in daily life far overwhelmed them. Ten million strikers seem to have weighed little in the balance, despite the subsequent efforts of leftists and left-wing historians to redress the imbalance.

And yet, it is possible to see that precisely that ultimate success of the individual was part and parcel of a central cause of the greater failure of May: the unbridgeable gap between the students and workers.

In fact, there is a common graffiti borrowed from the Situationists that encapsulates the incommensurability of the demands and worldviews of the two groups and explains why they were unable to truly work together. “Never work” was painted on many a wall around France. “Never work,” a cry that could be made by students and the young who did not have families to feed, and which could mean nothing—except perhaps an insult—to someone working in the mines in the North or an auto factory on the outskirts of Paris. They did not have the leisure to not work.

The ongoing war between the young and the old that was being fought throughout the West, in France no less than elsewhere, had, prior to May, been fought also within the French Left. It is not a coincidence that a premonitory moment occurred in 1965, when the PCF expelled the oppositionists within its student group, the Union des étudiants communistes, as a way of quelling discord within the party. And it is certainly significant that the two groups to the left of the PCF who fought it most bitterly had the word “jeunesse”—youth—in their names: the Trotskyist Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire and the Maoists of the Union de la jeunesse communiste marxiste-léniniste (UJCML). On May Day 1968, just two days before the outbreak of the revolt in the Latin Quarter on May 3, they brawled with the Communists at the annual march. Doctrinal disagreements were the ostensible reason for the battles and splits, but lurking behind, if not motivating them, was the impatience of young leftists with the seeming lack of fire of the Communists, an ambient feeling that youth meant hope, and nothing could be expected from the old. It was a playing out of the most (in)famous phrase of the American 60’s, spoken by Jack Weinberg in Berkeley: “Never trust anyone over 30.”

For the Communists, even at the highest points of the May events, the situation was not ripe for more than their more bread and butter demands; revolution was not the order of the day. For the young in May and subsequent years, the revolution was a week from Thursday. The Maoist Gauche Prolétarienne, heir to the UJCML, published a book in 1969 that summed up their attitude: Vers la guerre civile. Toward civil war. Between two such viewpoints, nothing in common was possible

Guy Texier, a Communist union leader at the naval shipyards in Saint-Nazaire, still expressed himself forcefully nearly fifty years later when I asked about students coming to his workplace: “Oh yes, we kicked them in the ass.” For Texier, the presence of the young signified but one thing: “They came to undo what we’d built.” The students, being young, for Texier and his comrades, did not understand what a strike meant: “…We kicked them in the ass. On principle, and also because the work of union militants is complicated, it’s not something where you come and everything is immediately decided. There are discussions…” The young simply had neither the knowledge nor the experience to lend the workers anything. And their elders considered it the height of arrogance for the students, whom they considered to be their future bosses, to pretend to be able to teach the workers anything.

Louis Althusser, though he was absent from Paris due to illness during the events, in his correspondence with the Italian Communist Maria-Antonietta Macchiocchi, expresses the PCF’s contempt for the young, speaking of the “revolutionary character of the working class, and of it alone,” dismissing the students as “subjectively revolutionary (= petty-bourgeois revolutionary declarations,” as opposed to the “objectively revolutionary” workers. He mocks the students as “living in a dream” that they and their barricades detonated the general strike. Althusser writes that, “in spite of the subjectively revolutionary intentions of the best of them,” they are “contributing objectively to the bourgeoisie’s reversal of the real order of things, i.e., to the passing over in silence of what, in the final analysis, played an absolutely determining role in May, that is, the general strike of nine million workers.”

The students “offering their help” was the height of arrogance for Althusser: “Instead of simply going to the factory gates to ‘offer their help’ to the workers, the Sorbonne students should at the same time have asked the militant workers at these factories to come to the Sorbonne to teach them how to carry out an occupation effectively.”

Lurking here we see the resentment felt by the “elders” for the arrogance of youth, for its insistence that it and it alone knew the way out of the current order, that it and it alone—and not the fogeyish PCF—could lead the workers along the road to the overthrow of capitalism. The student movement did not hide its disdain for the Communist leadership. The leader of the students’ March 22 Movement, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, boasted at the end of one of the large worker-student marches about how good it felt to be at the head of it while the Communist “scoundrels” took up the rear. Prior to the outbreak of the events, Pierre Juquin, a member of the Central Committee and the PCF’s delegate to intellectuals, had gone to the focal point of the uprising at the University of Nanterre to speak to the students and had been shouted down. He was treated no better than the Minister of Youth and Sport, François Missoffe. Missoffe, a supporter of De Gaulle since World War II and the holder of various offices under Gaullist governments before this one, had come to the university on behalf of the government to inaugurate its new swimming pool in January 1968. Cohn-Bendit confronted the minister, saying that the “White Book” on the problems of the young that his ministry had just published was “Six hundred pages of nonsense. You don’t even mention the sexual problems of the young.” Missoffe answered that, “If you have this kind of problem you should dive into the pool.” Cohn-Bendit responded that, “This was the kind of answer you get from fascist regimes.” He had been threatened with expulsion, though after negotiations with the minister, the threat would not be acted upon. But the tone was set. The battle lines had the students on one side, and the old—be they representatives of the working class or the government—on the other.

However arrogant the young, the older generation, equally certain of its correctness, gave as good as it got. It is one of the great ironies of the French events that coincidentally on May 3, the day the events began in the courtyard of the Sorbonne and the surrounding Latin Quarter, the PCF newspaper L’Humanité published a scathing editorial by the future party secretary Georges Marchais attacking the emerging student movement as “fake revolutionaries.” In the piece Marchais singled out Cohn-Bendit as a “German anarchist,” a characterization that would be twisted by the students so that Marchais would be made to have called Danny the Red a “German Jew.” The student radicals are only ever called “revolutionaries”—with scare quotes—by the communist leader, and they are dismissed as “children of the grand bourgeoisie, contemptuous of students of working-class origin who quickly put their revolutionary flame on the back burner to go manage daddy’s company and exploit the workers in the best traditions of capitalism.” At best they are the auxiliary of the working class and more particularly of the Communist Party, nothing more.

Even so, the leaders of the working class, the Communists among them, were inspired by the students’ struggle. The first Night of the Barricades on May 10—when the students fought the police, constructed barricades, and burned cars in the Latin Quarter—had as a direct outcome the strike declared the following Monday, May 13, that grew into a general strike. Students and workers marched together, but as Alain Krivine, founder and leader of the Trotskyist Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire, told me: “I could feel there was no connection. We marched with the workers but there was no connection.” This is May ’68’s epitaph.

The people I spoke to insisted that there were workers who attended the students’ general assemblies, but always specified that it was “young workers,” and there is historical evidence that this was the case. There are several explanations for this phenomenon; the most likely is that being young, they had not yet been fully integrated into the working-class world with its strong Communist presence. But it is every bit as obvious that young workers would have viewed themselves as young and part of the youth revolution that was occurring. The accent in their case was on the “young” part of their characterization. Whatever the case, they were nonetheless a small minority of the proletarian world of 1968, which Cornelius Castoriadis characterized as “the ponderous rearguard,” characterized by “its passivity in regard to its leadership and the regime, its inertia, its indifference to everything that was not an economic demand.”

This split between the young and old Left was not unique to France. The American Students for a Democratic Society, the leading radical group on the campuses until its implosion in 1969, began as the youth branch of the anti-communist social democratic League for Industrial Democracy, and disputes with its seniors ultimately led to an ugly divorce. In Italy, its “creeping May,” which lasted several years, saw the young autonomisti and brigadisti, rising against the reformist PCI of their elders.

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man theorized the decline of the workers as revolutionary actors, assigning that role to students and the black ghettoes, though it proved in the long run no more accurate a prediction than Marx’s was for the working class. On a lower intellectual level, Abbie Hoffman wrote Woodstock Nation, a hymn to the youth movement. eIt should have been seen at the time and must be kept in mind now, that the famous Summer of Love of 1967 occurred while Johnson was president and the war in Vietnam was expanding, and that Woodstock occurred while Nixon was president and the Silent Majority was feeling its oats. It required blindness then and blindness now to ignore how such contradictory events occurred simultaneously and to turn a blind eye to the fact that Woodstock and “peace, love, and understanding” did nothing to prevent slaughter in Southeast Asia.

It is capital’s genius to perfectly accommodate seemingly radical attacks that emanate from a segment—the young—that will only temporarily maintain the defining nature of its status: youth. Woodstock Nation died ignobly at Altamont; the dreams of May ‘68 in France ended when the Maoist Pierre Overney was killed by a security guard outside a Renault factory, and not a worker uttered a word of protest. Both were representative of the illusion that youth can carry the day, that it can change society. May ’68’s lesson is perhaps a dual and difficult one: in the first instance, the caricatural battle within households between the young, who feel they have all the answers their elders fail to see, and the old, who view the young as arrogant upstarts, carries over into the political Left. And the other is that youth on its own cannot change society while the working class has lost its role as the bearer of the future. The problem the French Left could not solve then and which continues to confront progressives is: what and who will be the motor of change? All of the past groups assigned the task: the working-class, youth, communities of color, have failed to accomplish it. If there is no one motive force—as history, and not theoretical texts, has shown—the classical revolutionary outlook no longer holds. And maybe that is May ’68’s real lesson: the revolutionary dream has long been a mirage and must be jettisoned for good and all. The Trotskyism, Maoism, Guevarism, and communism that roiled the participants of May ’68 in France and the student uprisings throughout the world are museum pieces. Electoral forms of radicalism have largely taken their place, with the young taking the lead. But for all the affection the young feel for more senior figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, it is in no way certain that the generational split within the Left of the 1960s has been overcome. Intergenerational discord was not born in the ’60s and did not die with it. The question history poses us is: can it ever be overcome? |P

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