Where Are the Riots of Yesteryear? Remembering May 1968
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the wave of radical revolts and revolutionary uprisings that startled the world in 1968 and which – although ultimately crushed by the forces of reaction that dominate the world to this day – left in its wake rights so fundamental that we tend to take them for granted today – for example sexual freedom, civil rights for African-Americans, and women’s equality. Yet a half-century later these hard-won rights are under attack, and people are once again rising to defend them.
Today in France, where in 1968 the student-worker rebellion led to weeks of general strikes with factory occupations, the students have once again occupied the universities, while the railroad workers, airline, and public service workers are striking against the counter-reforms being imposed by autocratic, neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron. Following the example of the spontaneous general strike of 1968, these diverse groups are hoping the unite and force the government to cease their attacks on public services and working people’s standard of living. (See Richard Greeman “Echoes of May ’68 Reverberate through France,” The Indypendent, April 6.)
In the U.S. as well, a wave of spontaneous strikes by underpaid, overworked, idealistic Red State teachers backed by public opinion is making sweeping gains, and movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, FightFor$15 (15andFairness in Canada) and other post-Occupy anti-capitalist struggles of the 99% are on the rise. Is there hope for real change?
“France Is Bored”
The first lesson of the May ’68 rebellion in France is that you never know when a sudden “breech” will open in the seamless wall of capitalist society. The explosion caught everyone by surprise. As Mitchell Abidor points out in the introduction to his fascinating May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France, the newspaper Le Monde was famously headlining “France Is Bored” on the very eve of what became a national rebellion.
Similarly, in 2011, everyone was caught by surprise when a local protest spread from Tunisia across the Arab world and on to Greece, to the “revolution of the squares” in Europe and across the Atlantic to Wisconsin and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of the 99%. To be sure, the international waves of radical movements of 1968 and 2011 reached a peak and eventually ebbed. The world capitalist system is still in place (in case you hadn’t noticed). But need I repeat Rosa Luxemburg’s famous dictum? All revolutions are doomed to fail … except the last one. Hope is always permitted. No is not enough.
In these dark times of Trumpocracy, we rebels need to celebrate our own past glories and moments of triumph and joy. Aside from the historical lessons we might be able to learn from the successes and failures of the rebels of 1968, we need to recover the memory of how it felt to be actors in the process of history, to come out of the shadows and occupy the stage of our political lives. Here is what one nostalgic veteran, who is still an activist, recalled:
“Nineteen sixty-eight (sigh!)… What a wonderful year! Rebellions breaking out all over the f–king place. From Paris to Prague, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Mexico City to Chicago – in the ghetto, on the campus, in the jungles of Vietnam, even within the councils of the Vatican, revolution was the happening thing.
“People in motion. All kinds of people. People thinking, acting, daring, participating in an unprecedented historical crisis on an unprecedented international scale. Sending sparks of inspiration and solidarity across frontiers of nationality, age, ideology, and class. Sparks illuminating a moment of world-historical significance, challenging the old order and illuminating possibilities of a different way of being, a new human order.”1
I am, as you might guess, the author of this elegiac evocation. In April-May 1968, I participated in the student occupation of Columbia University as a PhD candidate, and SDS activist and Junior Faculty member.2 The 50th Anniversary of “The Battle for Morningside Heights” is being commemorated around New York this month and, as we shall see, it had a number of similarities with the rising in France, which is where the main bout in this international wave of revolutionary upheaval was fought.
Oddly enough, there don’t seem to be too many books coming out about the French upheaval in English. So let us thank Mitch Abidor, the Brooklynite translator and writer, for having given us his “May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France” (AK Press, 2018) in such timely fashion. In fact, as he saw the anniversary approaching, Abidor networked with his contacts in France (including this writer) and hied himself off to Paris with a notebook, where he apparently had a literal orgy of interviews with veterans of the struggle.
His subject are fascinating people, all of whom are now in their 70’s (or older) and for whom the memory of those incredible days in May-June remains bright a half-century later. Abidor, who is knowledgeable on the subject as well as a skilled and engaging interviewer, talked to a variety of subjects, male and female, from “Veterans in the Struggle,” “Students in Paris” and folks in the provinces (“May Outside Paris”), through cinema folk (“May and Film”) and “Some Anarchists.” A section of this anthology is devoted to each group.
“I’m Here. I Exist!”
Abidor’s subjects express a wide variety of political viewpoints, but the common denominator among them is the positive, liberating, permanent, life-affirming effect on their lives of that extraordinary outbreak of rebellion and innovation that swept France in May-June 1968. This is the meaning of the somewhat mysterious title of Abidor’s book, May made them the people they are today.3 The most common expression of this self-discovery among the interviewees, especially the women, is “I found my voice.”
Here is Myriam Chédotal, a small-town girl who started going from class to class in her technical high-school urging the students to join the strike. “My life shifted. I realized I had a gift for speaking, for finding the right words. It was that day I gained confidence in myself, it was brilliant.” Similarly, fifteen-year-old Daniel Pinos recalls: “I was a timid young boy and there I found the words. I spoke for the first time, and it was ‘I’m here, I exist!’… I never would have done this without May ’68. I would have been another man.” In other words, “May Made Me.”
Another female interviewee:
“‘The main impact on France was the liberation of speech, the liberty of women, of homosexuals. It liberated morality. Now these things would have come anyway, but more slowly. And these things were both immediate and lasting. The most important was the liberation of speech.’
“Mitch Abidor: Did that last?
“‘Unfortunately, no. But what lasted was that you could dress the way you wanted, could wear your hair the way you wanted. It sees like these things are nothings but they’re important to people. It allows them to find themselves. It opened and broadened people’s horizons. And I think that has lasted until today. On the other hand, I think there has also been a depolitization.’”
Abidor supplies the reader with a helpful timeline of the May-June events, so we never feel lost among the personal recollections of his subjects, and his introduction provides a summary of them from the March 10 attack on the American Express office in Paris by student anti-Vietnam demonstrators through the weeks of mass demonstrations, strikes and factory occupations to June 16, when de Gaulle’s government finally restored “order” and outlawed the left-wing groups. The University’s attempts to discipline the anti-Vietnam student demonstrators, led to the student occupation of the Administration building at Nanterre University and the closing of the Sorbonne, where disciplinary hearings were to be held.
“The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution; the more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.”
This identical scenario played out at Columbia University in April, and “Amnesty” for the disciplined anti-war students was one of the principle demands of the student occupations there. Similarly, the issue of “women in the dorms” played a crucial role in both cases, and sexual liberation’s triumph over institutional puritanism was one of the great, and lasting victories of 1968. “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution; the more I make revolution, the more I want to make love” was a popular graffito on the walls of Paris, and several of Abidor’s female interviewees describe their sexual coming out in a moving way.
And although the leadership of the 1968 student rebellions in both the U.S. and France remained largely male (and often macho), all agree that they were at the origin of the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements that flourished in their wake. And although the 1968 student occupations at Columbia led to the unionization of many campus workers – a struggle that is still going on 50 years later with the strike of graduate assistants supported by the 1968 veterans! – the historical importance of the French student movement was that it detonated a workers’ movement which developed into three weeks of general strikes and occupations that paralyzed the economy and briefly opened vistas of a possible “better world.”
Revolution in the Air
Was this a “revolution?” Abidor struggles with this issue of whether to call it a “pre-revolutionary situation” or a “dress-rehearsal” for revolution, like Russia’s 1905, and he sensibly concludes to refer to it an “uprising” or “revolt” or “rebellion” or simply with the generally accepted phrase “the May Events.” Of course there is no doubt that many of the students and young workers who filled the occupied Sorbonne, the Odéon theater and participated in hundreds of General Assemblies and Action Committees during the weeks when the government and bosses were on the defensive were talking and dreaming of revolution. “All Power to the Imagination” was their slogan.
But none of them thought of actually taking power, and there were no plans or attempts to take over the National Assembly or any other similar power-center. There was plenty of violence, including the spectacular Night of the Barricades (May 10-11) when cars were burned and students dug up paving stones and stood off attacks of armored riot police and later confrontations during demonstrations and the clearing of the occupied factories and campuses, but this was largely symbolic and spontaneous violence, like the small fire set at the Paris Stock Exchange during a demo. Both the police and the strikers avoided the use of deadly force. Only three people actually died during the whole course of the “Events,” and their deaths were more or less accidental.
An Ambiguous Alliance
Even the proverbial “Student-Worker Alliance” proves ambiguous under the scrutiny of Abidor and his participant-witnesses. To be sure, it was the student uprising and its bloody repression during the Night of the Barricades, that sparked the workers’ mass strike and factory occupations, and their were several massive student-worker demonstrations. However, the French Communist Party (PCF) and its affiliated union the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) used all its bureaucratically-enforced disciplinary authority to prevent any actual contact (“contamination”!) between the workers, barricaded inside their factories, and the students, who came streaming out to show their solidarity and talk with them.
Moreover, the PCF/CGT, as Abidor points out in his introduction, far from harboring any thoughts of leading a “Communist revolution” did everything to channel these wildcat strikes and uprisings into the well-worn reformist channels of elections and wage-negotiations with government and management. As a top-down, bureaucratic organization, main goal of the Moscow-dominated Party-union was to maintain its control over the working class and its institutional status as the unavoidable intermediary between the government and the workers.
Let us add that in France, the government pays up to 80% of the expenses of recognized unions, of which the CGT is the largest. Moreover, in 1968 everyone in France was aware that in Czechoslovakia the ruling Communist Party was having a similar problem, trying to put down a nation-wide reform movement of workers and students demanding “Socialism with a human face.” This Prague Spring was crushed by a “fraternal” invasion of Russian tanks a few months later. The PCF, considered the most rigidly “Stalinist” of Communist Parties, strongly supported this repression.
Back to Normalcy
Within 48 hours of the spontaneous outbreak of the French general strike, the CGT was negotiating its end with the government, both parties desperate to bring things back to normal. On May 27, the two parties signed the Grenelle Agreement granting workers a significant pay raise and some benefits, but it took over ten days for the CGT to convince the workers to accept the Agreement and end their strikes and operations, despite the use of coercion and lies (like telling workers in one shop that all the other shops had already gone back to work).
The most dramatic example of this reluctance of French workers to return to the Hell of repetitive, boring, soul-destroying factory work after weeks of breathing the air of rebellion and dreaming of a different life, was captured on a short documentary film called “The Return to Work at the Wonder Battery Factory” where an anonymous woman refuses under any circumstances to return to her vile job and is outraged the others are accepting the order. “This is working class rage in its most primal form,” writes Abidor in his introduction “It is not, however, a desire to establish socialism immediately.”
I beg to differ. There is no way, fifty years after the fact, for us to know what that unidentified French woman “desired” in her heart, be it “immediate socialism” or higher pay, as Abidor seems to think. To his great credit, Abidor’s introduction makes the manipulative role of the CGT and Communists in ending the movement clear, yet paradoxically he draws the conclusion that “there is no reason to believe that workers to any large extent disagreed with them.” And he quotes approvingly the remark of the ex-Marxist Castoriadis4 that “In France in May ’68 the industrial proletariat was not the revolutionary vanguard, but rather it ponderous rear guard.”
The Proletarian Polemic
The revolutionary potential of working people is a polemical point that has divided the Left for generations, and post-Marxists like Abidor routinely dismiss their opponents as “romantic workerists,” stress the capitalist system’s infinite capacity to absorb opposition, and conclude, pessimistically, that “in the end it [May] paradoxically served to strengthen capitalism.” Abidor has elaborated on this position in a recent New York Review of Books article.
Although respectful of this position, as an unreconstructed “workerist” I remain optimistic. Fifty years after May 1968, the vast majority of today’s working class are female, non-white, under thirty and living in places like S.E. Asia, where dreadful working conditions continue to produce violent class struggles. If there is one chance in a hundred to survive the 21st century, world capitalism must be overthrown, and the billions of working people have both the motivation and the mass power to lead that struggle to its logical end.
I may be mistaken. No one can know what goes on inside the hearts and minds of masses of people in struggle, which change and develop as conditions ripen and confidence grows. But I would rather be an optimist, in order to encourage and build on spontaneous movements like today’s teacher strikes, than a pessimist who sees no alternative to capitalism’s death-grip on the planet. In any case, revolutionary waves like 1968 inevitably take everyone by surprise, including pessimistic post-Marxist intellectuals, who by coincidence had just held a conference in Toulouse when the General Strike broke out, leaving them stranded with no trains running. I like to visualize these stranded “Marxists” sitting around the lobby of their hotel, with nothing much to say to each other.
Putting aside polemics, the great strength of Abidor’s May Made Me, is that it presents a variety of voices among participants, leaving the reader to ponder their testimony and make up her own mind. Fifty years later, he has gathered the eye-opening oral testimonies of those then-young rebels. By listening to the voices of students and workers, as well as to those of their leaders, his book makes May ’68 appear as an event driven by millions of individuals, creating a mosaic human portrait of France at the time. We have every reason to thank him for his efforts and his honesty in presenting objectively facts and opinions that contradict his own ideological pre-suppositions. •
- Richard Greeman, “Fifty Years After: The Sixties in historical perspective.”
- For my personal account, please go to 1968: ‘What Did You Do in the Columbia War, Dad?’.
- An untranslatable play on words in French, where the verb faire means both “to make” and “to do.”
- Main theoretician of the seminal group “Socialism or Barbarism” which in the early Sixties inspired both Guy deBord and the Cohen-Bendite brothers and of which I was a student member in 1959-60.