Introduction: Interpreting May ’68


Why does it always seem to be France, and Paris specifically, where tensions explode? Is there something in the water that drives people to revolutionary action? To make the sewers flow with the blood of tyrants? The French Revolution saw the masses guillotine the King and Queen in the streets of Paris. The Paris Commune saw the first ever workers’ commune, before it was brutally crushed by the French and Prusssian armies. Between them, there were various other coups, uprisings, and revolutions – Napoleon’s Coup of Brumaire, the Bourbon Restoration, and the Revolutions of 1832 and 1848. In the 20th century, there was the Liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation and the massacre of anti-Algerian war protestors in 1961. And then we have May ‘68, the last great explosion in the perpetual powder keg of Paris. 

Many communists are rightfully skeptical of the narrative that France is a uniquely revolutionary country. After all, this is the same country that led the colonization of much of the world and still perpetuates neo-colonial practices to this day in Africa, Haiti, and the rest of their former colonies. The famous French revolutionary spirit was passive in the face of these colonial and racist practices. I was also a skeptic of May ‘68. Even before researching the events, I knew that it did not result in any serious revolutionary attempt. Why should I care about May ‘68 when I can devote my attention to studying the world-historical revolutions in Russia and China? My attitude began to change upon encountering Daniel Singer’s Prelude to Revolution: France in May ‘68, where he demonstrates that the events are essential for contemporary communists to grapple with. 

The events of May ‘68 are heavily contested by historians and commentators on the questions of the periodization and meaning of the events. In his article on the subject, Chris Reynolds says, “whether one considers the upheaval, its consequences, interpretations or explanations, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to find real consensus [on May ‘68].”1 Reynolds begins by exploring where there is consensus, which is on the general causes of the crisis: 

  1. President Charles De Gaulle was considered dated, and May demonstrated the need for new leadership. 
  2. Economic stagnation and increasing unemployment. 
  3. Generational clashes, with the younger generation rebelling against the conservatism of French society. 
  4. The university was the spark that exploded the fire. 

Reynolds problematizes this narrative, arguing it obscures the elusive nature of the events, that it reduces the events to that of the students (even though it was societal revolt), and that it reduces the crisis to a symptom of the general world crisis, undermining its particularity. He also criticizes the Paris-centric narrative, arguing that the rest of France deserves careful study. Even the dominant conception of May ‘68 as comprising three phases (student movement, general strike, political crisis), leads to a rigid separation and omits everything that happened in June. 

One interpretation of May ‘68 that has gained prominence is the idea that nothing significant happened, and in some cases, it even paved the way towards neoliberalism. Agnes Poirier, in the Paris Review on the 50th anniversary of the events, defends the argument made by Raymond Aron, the conservative French philosopher, that “May ’68 and its heritage are still nowhere to be found, impossible to define even fifty years later.”2 No revolutionary rupture actually emerged out of May ‘68, and many of the students’ demands were never even realized. She adds, 

“For all the talk of a new society, May ’68 proved to be more of a jubilant vacuum, devoid of any tangible project, as sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky explains in 1983’s L’ère du vide (The Void Era). Worse, its cult of the individual might have accelerated the coming consumerist frenzy. Destroying the values of the old social order without replacing them with new ones left future generations terribly confused. If it is indeed “forbidden to forbid” as one famous May ’68 slogan had it, then where does that leave citizens today? For many critics, May ’68 created a social childishness whose favorite toy is rebellion or l’esprit de rébellion.”3

Another example of the “neoliberal thesis” is provided by Christian Laval, who uses a speech of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy says, “See how the cult of money-worship, short term profit, speculation, how the excesses of finance capitalism were carried in the values of May ’68?” Laval adds, “This usually left-wing critique of capitalism and its excesses thus becomes, in Sarkozy’s mouth, a conservative argument: it was May 1968 that gave birth to deregulated finance, becoming responsible for this crisis precisely when he spoke these words.”4 Laval parallels Sarkozy with comments made by Regis Debray, a former student of Althusser and associate of Che Guevara, who “accused [May]’68 of being, ‘the cradle of a new bourgeois society’, or further, in a remarkable expression, ‘a ruse of Capital’. The protagonists of ’68 have, in this account, only accelerated an extension of capitalism, encouraging an Americanisation of everyday life and a generalised consumerism.”5  

The Neoliberal May’68 thesis stems from the struggle over the meaning of May itself. After all, historiography is generally the class struggle in memory, and the victor always writes the dominant narrative. In the case of the United States, the Native American Genocide and Chattel Slavery have been incorporated into a narrative of the ‘arc of progress’. Foundational atrocities necessary for establishing the settler-state become unfortunate mistakes corrected by the arc of progress and justice in history, as now oppressed peoples have rights, even if they are still oppressed through institutions like the police and carceral system. While May ‘68 was a very different type of struggle, the capitalist state attempts to obscure its legacy by emphasizing the role of the students, and in some cases, claiming that it actually ended up serving the development of French capitalism. If May ‘68 was a failed revolution, then it will remain situated within a leftist narrative of the events that future revolutionaries can draw upon in the same way that Lenin drew upon the legacy of the Paris Commune of 1871 for the Bolsheviks. If May paved the way for a new period of capitalism, and one that is less traditional and more brazenly exploitative, then we need to return to a nationalist capitalism that existed prior to May. The second maneuver, Laval argues, was Sarkozy’s move. He says,

“We inherit the idea of a “neoliberal May ’68”, emerging in two versions, one positive, the other negative. The positive version reinterprets ’68 as a “modernisation”, both necessary and desirable, of society and the capitalist economy – a “modernisation” in line with an ever-increasing acceptance and realisation of capitalism, the market, globalisation, advertising, etc. Meanwhile, according to the negative version, the event is read as corresponding to the emergence of an all-powerful, narcissistic, hedonistic individual, claiming for him/herself an unlimited freedom. This limitless individualism, in its refusal of social constraints and its desire to “enjoy without hindrance”, thus opens the way to unbridled capitalism, the deregulation of finance, the loss of all morality and solidarity.”6 

Reducing May’68 to a precursor of neoliberalism is a symptom of interpreting May primarily as a student movement. If May was merely a student movement, then it is easy to claim that it was pseudo-revolutionary as many of the students would later renounce their views and become integrated into the established order, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader in the March 22 Movement. Even as early as 1969, Althusser was concerned with the perception of May being dominated by the student movement as a way to water down its revolutionary content.7 It’s interesting that even those situated within the left, like Debray and Mitch Abidor, view May as primarily a student movement. Abidor says, “May ’68 was not the result of worker discontent: they only joined the fray ten days after the students set it off. The movement emerged from the students.”8 Abidor, in many places, emphasizes the activity of the students and the disinterestedness of the workers.9

Kristin Ross, a prominent historian of revolutionary struggles within France, criticizes both the neoliberal thesis and the reduction of May to that of the student movement. In May ‘68 and Its Afterlives, she situates the beginnings of May years earlier in the Algerian War of Independence. By beginning narratives in Nanterre, where the student movement began

“A whole fifteen to twenty-year period of radical political culture is occulted from view, a political culture whose traces were manifest in the growth of a small but significant opposition to the Algerian War and in the embrace by many French of a “third-worldist” north/south analysis of global politics in the wake of the enormous successes of the colonial revolutions. This political culture was also manifest in the recurrent outbreaks of worker unrest in French factories throughout the mid-1960s, in the rise of an anti-Stalinist, critical Marxist perspective available in countless journals that flourished between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s. The immediate political context in France was in fact one of triumphant Marxism: in large sectors of the workers movement, in the university in the form of Althusserianism, in small groups of Maoist, Trotskyist, and anarchist militants, and in a dominant frame of reference for work conducted in philosophy and the human sciences since World War II. All these developments recede in the service of a narrative in which a “spontaneous” May suddenly “erupted out of nowhere.” The exclusion of the Algerian and worker prehistory to May, as well as its gauchiste aftermath, is the price that must be paid for “saving” May as a happy month of liberated “free expression.”10 

Both Ross and Singer emphasize the influence of decolonial movements on radicals in France, the centrality of the general strike, and the heightening contradictions in French society leading up to May ‘68. While May ‘68 was a particular revolutionary event, it was also a part of a larger wave of struggles throughout the world. 

There are immediate parallels between May ‘68, the Cultural Revolution in China, and the Black Power Movement in the US. All three are drastically different in their content – May ‘68 consisted of student insurrections and a general strike. The Cultural Revolution was a period of violent political conflict within a revolutionary society, which sought to completely overhaul the mode of production, the division of labor, and the centrality of the state in politics. The Black Power Movement in the US generally sought to counter systematic racism by struggling against political and civil institutions. The movement took on many forms: non-violence (MLK), black nationalism (Malcolm X), and revolutionary intercommunalism (The Black Panther Party). What unites these three distinct movements is a response to the crisis of the ‘traditional’ working class, the challenging of all forms of authority, the confrontation of social contradictions (oppression of women, of Black people, hierarchical relationships), and the invention of new forms of struggle and organization in opposition to the existing institutions. Alain Badiou, in a lecture in 2008, asserts that the defining characteristic of May ‘68 was the notion that the old conception of politics was dying.11 May represented the birth of a new form of politics that was trying to break free from the old. The Cultural Revolution in China and the Black Power Movement in the US also exhibit this tendency of breaking free from old forms of politics, along with inventing new ones. 

Each movement also influenced each other in various ways. One can see the influence of the Cultural Revolution on the French left in Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise, which was released prior to the events of May, and there were many flags and posters of Mao and revolutionary China on view at the protests. For the influence of Mao on the Black Power movement, one should read Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch’s “Black Like Mao.” There are also plenty of connections between French radicals and intellectuals and the Black Power movement. Bouchra Khalili’s film, 22 Hours, details French poet Jean Genet’s visit to the US in support of the Black Panthers in the early 70s. Brady Thomas Heiner’s paper, “Foucault and the Black Panthers,” argues that Foucault’s shift from archeological inquiry to genealogical critique was motivated by his encounter with the writings of the Black Panthers. 

While all these events deserve careful study, especially the Black Power Movement for those located in the US, I am writing about May ‘68 because it most closely resembled the elements of a classical communist revolution. It began with an insurrection, intensified with a general strike, and the aesthetic of the protests was dominated by communist iconography. No Western Country, outside of maybe Italy, had a socialist infrastructure like France where the French Communist Party (PCF) was gradually gaining more votes in every post-war election, and the Communist Workers Union (CGT) comprised millions of members. While the two were not technically united under one organization, they formed a close alliance. There were other prominent socialist parties, like the Socialist Party (SFIO) that was in the electoral coalition of the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left. There was also the United Socialist Party (PSU), of which Badiou was a founding member, which splintered from the PCF due to their passive response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Outside of the CGT, the other major unions were the Force Ouvrier (comparable to the AFL-CIO), and CFDT (Catholic socialists). 

The events of May would be defined by the relationship of the PCF and CGT with the student movement. The student movement was diverse – as there were many sects of Anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists, and Left-Communists that were involved in the protests. However, the organizational form of the student movement was the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF). The UNEF gained prominence for its leadership in the opposition towards the Algerian War of the 50s and 60s. The war radicalized many students, and the PCF’s refusal to support the Algerian decolonial movement alienated young people from the party. By May ‘68, the leader of the UNEF was Jacques Sauvageot, and he, along with Alain Geismar and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, would become the faces of the student movement. Geismar originally left the PCF for the PSU, and then left the latter in 1967 as he became increasingly influenced by Maoism.

Despite mass student insurrections, the largest general strike in the history of the country, and a communist party large enough to seize state power, May ‘68 ended in failure. And not only did it fail, it failed partially because of the actions of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Communist dominated workers union (CGT). So we have the following problem: how was a revolutionary movement neutralized by a communist party and union? 

… 

There is a tendency within Marxism to use history as a justification for an individual’s given theory. For example, one may write a book on the Russian Revolution only to say “this is what the Bolsheviks should have done,” and their decision to pursue socialism in one country, for example, is what doomed them. Another view might say that it was Khrushchev’s secret speech that set the USSR onto the path of revisionism. Regardless, in the case of May ‘68, it’s easy to say that the PCF should have pursued seizing state power, or that the students should have been more aware of the conservative nature of the PCF. Ross criticizes this type of theorizing as “back seat driving” in an interview for her book on the Paris Commune, Communal Luxury, saying

“Historians and political theorists have been responsible for most of the massive literature generated by the Commune, and in the case of the latter—whether communists, anarchists, or even philosophers like Alain Badiou—this means approaching the event from the perspective of an already-formulated theory. Communard actions become the empirical data marshaled in support of verifying the given theory, as if the material world were a sort of local manifestation of the abstract rather than the other way around. To my mind this amounts to summoning up the poor Communards from their graves only in order to lend gravitas to philosophizing… I find political theorists to be the bane of our existence to the extent that they approach instances of political insurrection from the perspective of an overarching view that tries to unify them under a single concept, theory, or narrative of historical progression. I don’t think it is wise to consider historical events from an omniscient perspective, nor from the vantage point provided by our present, fat and complacent with all the wisdom of the “back-seat driver,” correcting the errors of the past.”12

Rather than assessing a historical event on its own terms, theorists will simply appropriate the events to fit a theory or argument. In the case of Badiou, this approach is evident in his categorization of the world historical revolutions in the communist sequence13: The first was the Paris Commune, which failed because it could not defend itself from counter-revolution. The second was the October Revolution, which corrected the failure of the Commune yet ran into a new contradiction that it failed to resolve: the failure of the party-state to facilitate the development of communism. Lastly, there was the Cultural Revolution in China, which attempted to resolve the contradiction of Marxism-Leninism by overhauling the party-state and experimenting with new forms of developing a communist society. Badiou’s analysis of the Commune is part of a larger argument which attempts to demonstrate that Marxism-Leninism has exhausted itself with the party-state. Ross’s critique is that Badiou uses the Communards as premises for an argument, which delegitimizes their struggle.

Interestingly enough, Badiou was a longtime collaborator with Sylvain Lazarus, whose historical approach shares many parallels with Ross. Lazarus also took issue with an approach to history and politics that seeks to dismiss or copy and paste theories from previous revolutionaries. In the case of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Lazarus is critical of attempts to reprimand the Bolsheviks for their methods, yet he is also critical of attempts to uncritically import their methods into the present. Asad Haider says,

“Lazarus presented this idea that he calls the “method of saturation,” which is to say that the fact that a political sequence has ended, that it ended in some kind of failure, does not invalidate what it invented. When we look back at these defeats and failures, we can still understand them on their own terms, in terms of what kind of politics was invented. It means that we can’t just pluck these things out and drop them into our present, but it also doesn’t mean that we have to view them as completely irrelevant to the way we conceive of politics today.”14

Ross’s approach is similar, as she seeks to understand events on their own terms by reading what the participants were saying and thinking. She says

“It is the event and its excesses which teach you how to consider it, how to think and talk about it. And once you have paid this kind of attention to workers as thinkers—an attention I learned when I encountered and translated some of the early work of Jacques Rancière—you can’t tell the story the same old way…You have to reframe and reconfigure those past experiences in order to render them significant on their own terms and to make them visible to us now, in the present. By focusing on the words and agency of concrete individuals acting in common to dismantle, little by little and step by step, the social hierarchies that make up a state’s bureaucracy, I’ve tried to think the Commune historically—as belonging to the past, as dead and gone.”15

Curiously enough, Ross concludes the quote with an argument that the Commune provides a potential alternative to the State Socialism of the 20th century, thereby critiquing herself in a roundabout way by using historical events to fit a political theory.

I have no interest in pursuing the approach Ross outlines – I will not chastise the students or the PCF for what they could or should have done. I will not claim that there could have been a French Revolution in 1968, inaugurating a new era of world socialism, if x, y, or z happened. My aim is not to cast judgement, but to analyze the events in order to yield the problems that were exposed. 

This series has been divided into five essays. The first two essays, “The Events of May ‘68,” and “The PCF and the Party Form,” will be published, in a modified form, in Negation Magazine’s Specter of the Party dossier as “May ‘68 and the Party-Form.” The difference between the essays published here and the one in Negation is that the former were combined together into one. The “Events of May ‘68” is more fleshed out here as a separate essay, and explicitly focuses on capturing the events. In many analyses of May ‘68, writers will not actually focus on the events, and merely offer their own interpretations or arguments. This makes sense for a writer like Badiou or Althusser, who generally wrote for an audience that is well acquainted with what happened. But for those born outside of France decades after the 60s, knowledge of the events is not a given. Thus, this essay is designed to ground the reader in the actual events before proceeding to the theoretical lessons we might pull from them. “The PCF and the Party-Form,” essay is more or less the same in content as “May ‘68 and the Party-Form,” the one difference being that the former does not include the summary of events that is in the latter. The last three essays are, “The Formation of the Student Movement” “Revolutionary Subjects,” and “Politics and ‘Exceptional Situations.’” 

I will argue that the problems exposed by May ‘68 both altered the development of Marxist theory, and demand an urgent need to reconceptualize and further develop areas of Marxist theory. Specifically, the problem of the party-form, how shifts in the capitalist mode of production in the imperialist countries altered the relationship between workers and intellectuals, the relationship between resistance in both the “colony” and the metropole, the question of revolutionary subjects, and lastly, the Marxist conception of politics in relation to “exceptional situations”. 

Notes

1. Chris Reynolds, “May ‘68: A Contested History,” Eurozine, May 7, 2008. 

2. Agnes Poirier, “May ‘68: What Legacy?”, The Paris Review, May 1, 2018.

3. Poirier, “May ‘68: What Legacy?”

4. Christian Laval, “May ’68: Paving the way for the triumph of neoliberalism? Rereading the event with Foucault and Bourdieu,” La Deleuziana 8 (2018), 12. 

5. Laval, 13.

6. Laval, 10-11. 

7. Louis Althusser, “Letter on the May Events,” Verso, March 15, 1969, accessed from https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3851-louis-althusser-s-letter-on-the-may-events.

8. Mitch Abidor, “May ‘68: A Great Lyrical Community,” The Paris Review, May 1, 2018. 

9. “May ‘68: a Great Lyrical Community,” and “1968: When the Communist Party Stopped a French Revolution,” The New York Review, April 19, 2018. 

10. Kristin Ross, May ‘68 and Its Afterlives, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 8-9.

11. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010), 31. 

12. Kristin Ross, “Survival of the Paris Commune: an interview with Kristin Ross,” Verso Books, March 18, 2016.

13. Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, 125-128.

14. Asad Haider, “Politics as Exceptional Interruption,” Negation Magazine, December 2021.

15. Ross, “Survival of the Paris Commune.”

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