X Close

The failure of May 1968 Revolutionaries traded Maoism for marketing

The revolution will be privatised (Dominique BERRETTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The revolution will be privatised (Dominique BERRETTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


May 24, 2022   5 mins

“What defines our public life today is boredom”. That was a Le Monde front-page headline in March 1968. Two months later, a revolution would erupt that would shake the foundations of the Fifth Republic, divide France, and alter its history forever.

It began with sit-ins and protests of small, far-Left groups at Nanterre University on the outskirts of Paris. Their actions only interested a small minority of students. Everything changed on 3 May, when these groups met in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. Hearing a rumour that an extreme Right-wing militia was coming to attack them, they prepared to fight. The dean called the police, resulting in the arrest of several activists, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The brutality of the clashes took everyone by surprise. Simultaneously, a series of strikes occurred in factories. As the situation escalated, the government started to panic.

At the end of May, it tried to reach an agreement with the striking workers, but to no avail. President de Gaulle disappeared from the country for 24 hours. The government hung in the balance, but the General returned and dissolved parliament, calling elections for the end of June. Gaullists won in landslide, strikes and student protests lost popular support. They died out.

In June, Michel Foucault watching France from a perch in Tunisia, wrote to one of his correspondents: “From here it looks like a great mystery.” More than half a century later, there is no consensus either on the causes or on the meaning of those events. Were the students motivated by economic anxieties? Or was this a cultural revolution? The question boils down to whether the underlying cause of the youth revolt was precarity or abundance.

The baby boom meant that there had never been as many students in French universities as there were in 1968: 508,000 in the academic year 1967-68 — the equivalent number in 1950-51 was only 135,000. The worries of students in the humanities, who made up the majority of the protesters, was supposedly linked to the scarcity of teaching jobs available to them.

Louis Gruel, a Maoist who took part in the May riots, rubbished this explanation in his La RĂ©bellion de 68: Une relecture sociologique. Not a single demand or pamphlet published in 1968, Gruel notes, raised the issue of the future of students on the labour market. The devaluation of diplomas came much later. When Gruel conducted a survey among former activists, none recalled that concern for the future propelled them to protest.

France was not exactly on its knees economically in the late-Sixties. It was the second half of Les trentes glorieuses, a three-decade stretch of uninterrupted GDP growth, expanding by an average of 5% a year throughout the period. Full employment prevailed; the working class had seen its purchasing power increase; younger generations had every reason to believe that they would be better off than their parents.

In reality, only a small fraction of the young demanded a revolutionary abolition of consumer society and “putting power in the hands of the imagination”, as one May slogan went. In September 1968, the IFOP asked students what was most important to them: the revolutionary transformation of society, reform of the university or passing the exams. Only 12% of students prioritised the downfall of capitalism.

The pretence of a spiritual revolution against capitalism, however, deceived many Catholics. The intellectual wing of French Catholicism, from Maurice Clavel to Jacques Maritain, fell hard for the revolution. Students, claimed Maritain, were fighting on the streets because they were “systematically deprived of reasons to live”.

Revolutionary zeal erupted with even greater force among priests than among Catholic intellectuals. Around 1,500 priests abandoned their vocation in 1968. Monastery councils re-organised themselves; decisions would now be taken collectively. In one of them an old Dominican, a translator of Aristotle, asked permission to purchase the philosopher’s works. The council concluded: “authorisation denied, Aristotle is out of date”.

The philosopher Raymond Aron measured his own bewilderment in May ‘68, by wondering what would emerge from the chaos. He recognised the student’s criticisms of French society, but was alarmed by their failure to articulate a counter-ideal. Like the protests following the death of George Floyd, chaos became a goal in itself. As Martin Gurri described America’s violent summer of 2020, the protests of French students in 1968 were “an exercise in pure negation, in the repudiation of the status quo without an alternative in sight. At this point, the question of nihilism becomes impossible to avoid.”

Hollow philosophy followed hollow political action. There was an extraordinary outpouring of major philosophical works in France at this time. Foucault’s Words and Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969); Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology (1967). There was Jacques Lacan’s Écrits in 1966; Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968), and Logic of Sense (1969).

In La PensĂ©e 68, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut take a critical look at the thought that accompanied the May revolt. What strikes them is that “philosophies of difference”, as they were called, ossify after the rebellion into a new conventionality. They break with the style of French thought, rejecting its clarity and replacing it with a cult of paradoxes, while constantly striving for unreasonable “complexity”. The ideas of Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze by no means represent the fruit of French intellectual life. They borrow heavily from Freud, Nietzsche, Marx and Heidegger. French philosophy becomes nothing but a radicalised outgrowth of German thought.

The Leftist movements that arose in May 1968 did not disappear. But instead of carrying out a revolution, they squabbled among themselves. Above all, feminism, which flourished as never before, came into conflict with Maoism. Feminists from the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF) rejected the dogmas of revolutionary struggle as understood by Maoists. They founded their cause not on theories but on experience, supposedly more truthful than the concepts championed by men.

“The activists spend their time fighting for others, for workers or for immigrants,” says one feminist quoted by the sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff. “Let us talk about ourselves, and let the workers talk about themselves.” MLF-style feminism represented the culmination of the spirit of May ’68. It carried the demand to abolish the barrier separating what is private from what is public, to its ultimate conclusion. While revolutionaries assumed that the personal was irrelevant to the cause of the liberation of the proletariat, for French feminists politics begins with feelings. For many it ended there.

Decades later, we can begin to see the events of May as a larger turning point within Left-wing politics. The nature of revolution changed. It ceased to be a collective project based on economic considerations, pursued to change society. Revolution became privatised, reduced to the domain of inner lives. For the Left, this utter futility was compensated, in the words of the philosopher RĂ©gis Debray, by the “intensity of imaginary struggles”.

The ‘68 generation moved from Maoism to marketing. Guy Hocquenghem, 22 at the time of the revolts and a participant in them, observed that his former comrades swapped joints for cocaine, and scooters for sports cars. They created a “mafia” occupying the most important positions in French society.

“The eternally young,” he wrote, “‘the class of 68′, blocks with great determination the path for everything born after them”. They have turned contestation into a consensus that is neither Left nor Right, but gathers the worst elements of both. It is no surprise that in France, baby boomers and soixante-huitards have become Emmanuel Macron’s most reliable supporters.

Contrast Macron with Charles de Gaulle. The old general never defined Gaullism, but in his memoirs he described it as “an instrument of struggle and renewal”. The riots of ‘68 convinced him that France needed to reinvent itself. As Arnaud Teyssier has argued, de Gaulle’s response to the botched revolution on the streets was a revolution of his own.

He ordered a referendum in 1969 which proposed major changes to France’s institutions. De Gaulle wanted to give the new, broad middle-classes the chance to participate more fully in the Fifth Republic. More authority to the regions; a new second chamber to replace the elitist Senate.

When the French rejected his project, the General resigned. He believed France had chosen stagnation. He sensed that without completing his proposed revolution, France would once again be ruled by an oligarchy of unrepresentative political parties. Only in the last five years has that oligarchy dissolved in the acid bath of its own contradictions.

By the end of the Sixties, the French, having flirted with revolution, abandoned the idea altogether. They did not want a revolution from the Left, nor did they want de Gaulle’s revolution from above. The young were as reluctant to change the world as to rebuild France’s institutions. They were focused on the present, and indifferent to both the past, and what lay ahead of them. France chose stagnation. The curve of decline, as Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, is complicated.


Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is a writer from Poland.

ktdrozdowski

Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mĂȘmes idĂ©es qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnĂ©s payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

9 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
2 years ago

France chose stagnation.

Only France? Neil Young throwing his toys out of the cot over Joe Rogan (and Joni Mitchell) sums up the baby boomers for me.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago
Reply to  Hendrik Mentz

Neil Young is a more complicated figure than that.Yes he was wrong about Joe Rogan but he did support Reagan’s hard stance in the cold war against communism and he did criticise the hard drugs chic of the 1970’s both of which history proved him right .Most of his fellow songwriters just followed whatever the fashion was

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

Brilliant. A pleasure to read.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

“The baby boom meant that there had never been as many students in French universities as there were in 1968: 508,000 in the academic year 1967-68 — the equivalent number in 1950-51 was only 135,000.”
What an extraordinary statistic! Was it due to the French rejection of the one child per family model, or to a vast increase in the availability of student places, or both?
Either way off course it was only possible thanks the extraordinary generosity of the USA and its Marshall Aid Plan, something that most, if not all Frenchman studiously ignore.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“They created a “mafia” occupying the most important positions in French society.”
No different than the UK then

bree stevens
bree stevens
2 years ago

in the strict sense it is the people merely flying under the sign of the philosophy of difference that continue to squabble amongst themselves and not the real thinkers of difference. they approach present matters from the bad infinite of closed metaphysics, are motivated solely by materialism and changing proprietors.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

This is a very interesting article, but one thing it seems to do, like all the other historic analyses of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s that took place in the West generally, is to assume that they were all fuelled by a desire for progress or foreknowledge of a better future.

I think this is overcomplicating it: as the article says above, it’s possible also to explain these events through pure nihilism, but what is not explained is WHY people would act in such a manner. What is going on, at a stage where more people were living lives free from want than any other time in history, that a small group of institutional vandals can seriously propose destroying the system? Such an attitude would have been more justified at literally any other time and place in the whole of human history, so why now, and for what?

One thing I do note above was this part:

“The worries of students in the humanities, who made up the majority of the protesters, was supposedly linked to the scarcity of teaching jobs available to them.Louis Gruel, a Maoist who took part in the May riots, rubbished this explanation in his La RĂ©bellion de 68: Une relecture sociologique. Not a single demand or pamphlet published in 1968, Gruel notes, raised the issue of the future of students on the labour market.”

Hmm. Firstly let’s deal with the Maoist who dismissed the idea: he’s missing the point. Of course the official documentation would not admit the incentive behind the activism, that would betray the whole point of speciously-justified activism in the first place. Why were there so many humanities graduates anyway? Did France really need half a million new philosophers every year, and did they all, seriously, think they’d be getting jobs? We have this problem in the UK nowadays, where we’ve turned higher education into a three-year debt-binge, often resulting in a degree in which neither society nor the economy has even a scintilla of interest.

Does this make the debt-burdened student angry? Of course it does? Does this entitle the angry student to make this everyone else’s fault? Of course it doesn’t. Yet the assumption by today’s ruling establishments is that when unemployable middle class graduates block traffic and destroy monuments, they must be treated as having a genuine grievance.

I remain persuaded that most of the cultural revolutions we’ve seen in wealthy western nations post-WW2 are nothing more than an insufficient degree of policing by establishments against worthless troublemakers.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

A most interesting read. â€œan exercise in pure negation, in the repudiation of the status quo without an alternative in sight.” Possibly even more true of the 2011 Occupy movement. After over two centuries of increasing cynicism made even more pervasive by the internet, it’s challenging to get folk to coalesce around any specific programme of positive change, even though in the general case there’s maybe great appetite for that across society.

Frances Mann
Frances Mann
2 years ago

As a nineteen year old I was at the Sorbonne in May ’68, doing a French course for foreigners. I was not all up to speed on the student politics of the time but what I vividly remember is how much it was the brutality CRS police that caused outrage and encouraged a sense of grievance and justification for more ‘manifestations’. I remember too how exhilarating it felt to see so many serious institutions like the Bourse and buildings like La Madeleine taken over and festooned with black anarchist flags and red communist ones, and I remember the occupiers cheerily giving out free sandwiches. Then memorably after weeks of this there was a huge demonstration, of young people, as I remember, a lot driving about in cars, all in support of De Gaulle after which all the rest seemed to peter out.