A version of this essay was originally published in the Negation Magazine, “Specter of the Party” dossier.
May ’68 was the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers’ movement, and the only “general” insurrection the overdeveloped world has known since World War II. It was the first general strike that extended beyond the traditional centers of industrial production to include workers in the service industries, the communication and culture industries—the whole sphere of social reproduction. No professional sector, no category of worker was unaffected by the strike; no region, city, or village in France was untouched.Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives
. . .
Once Upon a Time in Nanterre…
“You travel up the Champs-Elysees, past the Arc de Triomphe, and much later past the high buildings huddled near the Rondpointe de la Defense, where the city planners, in an effort to diversify the French capital, sponsored a new business center. You have to go much further westward, where new blocks of apartment buildings contrast with the old suburban villas. Suddenly on your left you discover a shantytown, still housing thousands of foreign, mainly North African, workers, and on your right, Rue de la Folie – Folly Street. This will take you to a vast conglomeration of haphazard modern structures, which even now gives the impression of an unfinished building site. You have reached your destination, the now celebrated faculty of arts of Nanterre la Folie.”1
The university in Nanterre was opened in 1964 with the intention of being an American style campus – suburban, isolated, and outside of the hustle and bustle of the Latin Quartier where the famous Sorbonne is located. But it was these same characteristics that contributed to the heightened radicalization amongst the students there as they became bored, isolated, and desperate for connection. “By 1967, when the campus got overcrowded and the disorderly reforms in syllabuses and teaching schedules created a climate of anxiety… the spirit of revolt spread.”2 In November ‘67, a wildcat strike took place on campus which resulted in the creation of student-teacher commissions, where students were granted a small say in the running of the university. The students wanted dramatic reforms to university life, and the lack of concessions from the faculty radicalized them.
Outside the university in Nanterre, young Maoist groups were trying to organize migrant workers, and were devoted to opposing the Vietnam War. The students wanted to do something to demonstrate their solidarity with the Vietnamese.
“On March 22 a few hundred students gathered together, determined to protest in a spectacular fashion. In addition to Trotskyists from the JCR and anarchists, there were all sorts of students who were involved in the campaign against the American intervention in Vietnam. The question was what to do? After much discussion the students opted for a symbolic act, the seizure of the administrative building; that is, the occupation of forbidden territory legally reserved for the authority. Once inside, drawing on the ex- perience of the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (Socialist German Student Federation), the SOS, they set up commissions on student and workers’ struggle, the class structure of the university, imperialism, produced a manifesto, and had time to depart before the police were called in. This was all. But the date is worth remembering. It marks the official birth of a political force – the March 22 Movement – that was to leave its imprint not only on Nanterre.”3
The students in Nanterre believed in performing ‘spectacular’ actions in order to grab the attention of passive onlookers and mobilize them into their movement. They rebelled against the university in any way they could, including interrupting lecturers and provocatively disagreeing with the content of their lectures.
After the March 22 affair, the Dean called in undercover policemen to try and hound out the radical students. However, the students quickly figured this out, and began posting pictures of the undercover cops on the campus bulletin boards. The authorities tried to tear them down, the students resisted, and in the ensuing conflict, the Dean called in the uniformed police to break up the students. The escalation of the conflict, and the repressive tactics used by the school, radicalized even more students. Towards the end of April, the students proposed two “anti-imperialist” days off on May 2nd and 3rd. Rumors began to swirl that Occident, a far-right organization, had brought in reinforcements from all over France to attack Nanterre in response. With tensions running high, the Dean decided to temporarily close the faculty and suspend classes.4 Singer says,
“Nanterre was not so much a microcosm of French academic life as a hothouse in which the revolutionary plant grew somewhat faster than elsewhere… The real trouble was not that the students were fighting to defend their privileges. Quite the contrary… The real trouble was that the students wanted to join in the common struggle; that they wanted to change society, not just the university; that the whole nature of their movement drove them to seek contact with the rank and file after their abortive attempts to push the union establishment into bolder action.”5
On May 3, activists from the March 22 movement in Nanterre, since their faculty was temporarily shut down, joined a meeting at the Sorbonne. There were about 400 students congregating in the main courtyard, with various sects of Trotskyists, Maoists, and left-wing communists in attendance. They were discussing how to respond to the closure of Nanterre, while preparing for their impending meeting with the disciplinary council who were threatening expulsion of the leaders of the March 22nd movement.
Jean Roche, the rector of the university, decided to send in the police to break up the meeting. This was a significant decision, as “never before had the police entered the Sorbonne—not even the Germans had violated that sanctuary!”6 By 4 P.M., the Sorbonne was surrounded by a massive police force, helmeted, truncheons in hand, tear-gas grenades at the ready, prepared for battle.”7 Many students were taken into custody, and the rest of the students responded by confronting the police and demanding the release of their comrades. The police were surprised by the response, and replied with more violence. “The truncheons and grenades only seemed to multiply the zeal, and the number of demonstrators; from a few hundred they grew into a couple of thousand. The police had difficulty in clearing the boulevard. The students immediately revealed what were going to be their main assets: speed, fantastic daring, a flair for improvisation, and knowledge of the terrain.”8 The skirmishes lasted into the night before fizzling out: May had officially begun.
How did the Communist Party and its press respond? Georges Marchais, a prominent PCF official who would become head of the party in 1972, wrote an article in the party’s paper, L’Humanite, published the morning of March 3 criticizing the March 22 movement.9 He dismissed the student leaders as petty-bourgeois, and claimed they were serving the interests of the Gaullists. L’Humanite published another article after the events of May 3 with a further critique of the students’ adventurism.10 Singer cites the article which says, “already now, the great mass of students, including, we are sure, many of those who were led astray, can measure the serious consequences to which political adventurism inevitably leads, even if it is concealed behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases.”11
While the rest of France hadn’t yet comprehended the gravity of the conjuncture, the UNEF, called for a nationwide university strike. The UNEF had three demands: re-open the Sorbonne, withdraw the police, and release the arrested students. The UNEF sent appeals to the labor unions to join the strike, and called for a demonstration on the following Monday (the events began on Friday). After the confrontations, Rector Roche decided to close the Sorbonne indefinitely.12
That Monday, the 6th, was one of the bloodiest days of May. The fighting began in the morning, where thousands of police were gathered to guard the Sorbonne, which looked like an occupied fortress. The students decided not to confront the police, and instead marched around the streets of Paris chanting various slogans with the general support of the public. As they eventually approached the Left Bank, “an ominous silence fell as they approached the Rue St. Jacques leading to the rear of the Sorbonne. What now?”13 Before they could even make a decision, the police charged towards them with “unexpected savagery.”14 Singer says, “The zealous gendarmes had little time to savor their triumph. It was their turn to run under a rain of stones. Mad with anger, the students broke up the street for missiles. Learning from the enemy, they put the cars unlucky enough to be parked nearby in a staggered arrangement.”15
After the police brought in massive reinforcements to drive back the students, the latter retreated to the Place Denfert-Rocherau for a mass meeting previously arranged by the UNEF.
“The spot was well chosen. Near enough the Latin Quarter to show that the students were determined to recover their district, the square was vast enough to contain a big crowd. Its numerous outlets provided potential escape routes and were a puzzle for the police, who could not guess where the marchers would move. In the middle the statue of the Lion of Belfort – a smaller copy of Bartholdi’s original – supplied a platform for men with a loud-speaker. Known once as the square of hell -Place d’Enfer – it was to be for a very brief season the meeting place of youthful hope.”16
The students resumed their march on Saint Germain, and the police began hurling grenades at them. The police, deciding not to attack the students head on, changed their tactics to ‘bomb first, mop up after’. They would throw grenades from a distance, and then supplement them with tear gas and concussion grenades. The grenades and substances would cause the students to isolate into smaller groups which were easier to deal with for the police.
“There was a time when, faced with such a black armada, the students would have turned and run. Now fear was turned into passionate determination, and they tended to run forward. In daring hands the cobblestone was a match for the hand grenade. Le pave – the new hero of May, the Parisian paving stone, small enough to fit the hand, heavy enough to hurt, provided munition for the fighter and a brick for his barricade.”17
The confrontations ended around 10 pm, although sporadic fights continued deep into the night. On this ‘Bloody Monday’, there were 422 arrests, and 345 wounded policemen.18
The repressive tactics of the police did not work, as the next night, which Singer dubbed ‘the Long March’19,
“There were probably twice as many, some twenty to thirty thousand [protestors] around the Belfort Lion… The revolt now had its own paper, Action, and it sold like hotcakes. Leaflets were also distributed, explaining how best to cope with tear gas. More professors, workers, intellectuals, had come to express their solidarity, but the students were still the most numerous and they set the tone.”20
The police packed the Latin Quarter and guarded the Luxembourg Garden with large trucks and ‘bus-loads’ of policemen. The students were not ready to fight just yet, and chose to march through the streets of Paris, parading red and black flags and singing the Internationale.21 They marched first through the Champs-Elysees, the home of the French bourgeoisie and the representative of consumer Paris, and then marched by the Arc de Triomphe and towards the Concorde.
“Power is in the street,” chanted the demonstrators moving up the Champs-Elysees. The vast and elegant avenue had not witnessed such a parade for decades. Its lights were lit when, toward 10 P.M, the crowd filled the circular ending to the avenue, the famous Etoile, the undisputed star of wealthy Paris. Red and black flags floated in the wind, and the massed demonstrators roared the “Internationale” around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lying beneath the Arc de Triomphe. This was the supreme sacrilege, which in days to come would provoke indignant protests, because it is well known that the poor fellow got, along with a bullet in his head, a pledge not to be subjected to anything but patriotic prose and the national anthem.”22
Eventually the students decided to march back into the occupied territory of the Latin Quarter, and the battles began at midnight. They were not as explosive as Bloody Monday, due to the fatigue of the previous night and a day of marching.
The next day, the political climate shifted further in the students’ favor as their courage and discipline in the face of police brutality was winning over the public.23 Now there were mass demonstrations throughout France, not just Paris. On the morning of Wednesday the 8th, the Ministry of Education condemned the actions of the students and said nothing of meeting their demands. The students were planning a demonstration organized by the UNEF in the faculty of science, which began in uncertainty as the leaders were planning the next move. Do they negotiate with the Ministry of Education or continue on their path? They feared a bloodbath if they continued to fight, but they also did not want to compromise on their principles. The UNEF eventually dispersed the march to avoid another confrontation with the police, which triggered feelings of disappointment amongst the students. Singer says, “the students felt cheated, convinced in a curious way that the revolt was over, that it had been seized surreptitiously by parties, unions, organizations, and was now to be bartered away in some shady deal.”24 The students were becoming weary that their movement would be co-opted towards reformism.
This was the government’s opportunity to seize the moment and neutralize the crisis, as the students were conflicted and demoralized. But instead of moving quickly to end it, they were quibbling over the details of what would happen if they appeased the students even slightly. This gave the students the opportunity to regroup after their mistake. On Thursday, the students performed a sit-in on the Boulevard Michel since the Sorbonne was still in the hands of the police. “With thousands just sitting down, the Boul’ Mich’ provided a stage for a lively teach-in. Alain Geismar publicly admitted he had made a mistake the previous day. Jacques Sauvageot explained the position of the students’ union and took into account the criticism of it, since this was no passive assembly.”25 That night, a mass meeting was held at the Mutualite, a conference center in Paris, where the students and revolutionary groups plotted next steps. That day and night re-ignited the hopes of the students. “Whereas the previous evening the prevailing mood had been one of disappointment, that night there was a conviction that the showdown could not be put off for long.”26 The government was still unsure of how to handle the situation since they could not just neutralize the students with violence as that would create a massive PR scandal. “The government was by then reluctant to wield the truncheon and loath to surrender.”27
On Friday the 10th, the UNEF reached an agreement with other education and labor unions for a demonstration the following Tuesday. The students went on another march through the Latin Quarter that night, and eventually they reached a point where they could either retreat or fight the police. “The demonstration could not move forward nor could it turn right toward the Seine. It was only allowed to turn left and march up the Boulevard St-Michel back to its point of departure. The trap was obvious and so was the counter.”28 The leaders instructed protestors to spread out and occupy the Quarter, which upset the PCF representatives and they left in protest. The students tore up the road (for cobblestone weapons), and ferociously built barricades. This was “entirely spontaneous, a sheer invention of the crowd,” according to Singer. “They were a sign that the students, while not attacking, would not yield until their demands were met.”29
That night, the Ministry said they could meet the first two demands (re-open the Sorbonne and withdraw the police), but not the third (releasing their comrades). The students refused to relent until this third demand was met, which the Rector refused again. The whole spectacle further weakened the Government’s image in the eyes of the public, since everything was unfolding on public radio. The students continued to build barricades, and the atmosphere was one of “determination, exhilaration, and optimism.”30 The students made one last appeal to the ministry, which was obviously denied, and the police were instructed to clear the barricades. The violence of the police shook the academic world, and demonized the police and the government in the eyes of the public which further vindicated the students’ cause.31 The initial demonstration agreed upon by the UNEF and other unions was moved up to Monday from Tuesday. Georges Pompidou, the Prime Minister and probable successor to De Gaulle, was tasked with cleaning up the situation. His idea was to put the ball in the students’ court by meeting their demands. Singer says, “What Pompidou did not bargain for was the contagious effect of the student example. For his scheme to work, the university had to be isolated.”32
The union demonstration on Monday, the 13th was the biggest demonstration Paris had ever seen, with millions of people pouring into the streets. “It was also the most dynamic [demonstration] in years. There were more red flags than in the past, more fists were clenched above heads in the revolutionary salute, and the “Internationale” was sung time and time again.”33 There were also similar marches throughout France. Singer notes two impressions from the march: 1) The amount of young people, and 2) The divorce between the students and the communist party-liners. The contradiction was that the Party and Union didn’t want any trouble, while the students were looking to agitate. The Sorbonne re-opened that night, and the students immediately began to occupy it.
The General Strike
The general strike began the following week, immediately succeeding the march. The strikes started at the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, where “more than 2,500 employees at the factory, who had fought for months against a decision to cut working hours, launched May’s first major sit-down strike.”34 Strikes quickly spread throughout France, and eventually reached the Renault car factory in the outskirts of Paris. The strike wave began on Monday the 13th, and then escalated on the 15th, 16th, and 17th. A common trend throughout the strikes was the activity of young workers employed in the factories, who were working jobs inferior to their qualifications. Alain Badiou says “the strike call and the decision to strike had, in general, little to do with official working-class institutions. In most cases, the movement was launched by groups of young workers outside the big union organizations, which then rallied to it, partly in a bid to take control of it.”35 The younger workers would often launch wildcat strikes, in contrast to the sit-down strikes preferred by the CGT. “Within a week the tide had swept over the whole of France and paralyzed the bulk of basic production.”36 Around 10 million workers went on strike, ranging from factory workers to chemical and engineering workers, to artists, actors, and architects.37 It was a wave that threatened to flood the nation.
The general narrative of May ‘68 centers the student revolts, and while they deserve significant recognition and attention, the French state would have not entered such a crisis if not for the general strike. As Althusser says, “the absolutely determining role in the events of May was played, in the final analysis, by the general strike of nine million workers. The mass participation of university students, secondary school students, and young intellectual workers in the May events was an extremely important phenomenon, but it was subordinated to the economic class struggle of the nine million workers.”38
The passing of the torch from the students to the workers was tense. The students went to the factories to talk with the striking workers, but were prevented from entering by the CGT. The CGT, like the PCF, was hostile towards the students and wanted them to stop their agitation in the streets, fearing government repression.39 The students managed to speak with the workers at length from behind the factory gates, but struggled to create good arguments to push for more revolutionary action. Singer adds, “they were also often overawed, treating each workman as if he were the embodiment of the historical role of his class.”40 The CGT and PCF dismissed the students as petty-bourgeois rebels, and refused to engage with them. According to Singer, the de facto goal of the union was to keep the movement within the bounds of the existing institutions.
At this juncture, the students had to solve three problems: combat the government’s attempt to isolate them; create a program attractive enough for both reformists and revolutionaries; and link their struggle with that of the workers. The last problem was the most dominant.41 Despite sectarian differences between the different revolutionary student factions, they were all united on one point, which was on the necessity of building the movement from the bottom up — a desire that was strengthened by the actions of the Communist Party to handbrake the movement. For Singer, the contradiction of May goes as follows:
“The communists [in the PCF and CGT], who could carry the movement as far as it would go, were determined to check it. The students and their political allies, eager to push it to a revolutionary conclusion, had neither the equipment or the following to perform the task. Their only chance was to lead into action the masses usually guided by the Communist party. The clash between the two partners was inevitable.”42
The Communists continued their attacks on the students throughout, siding with the government and calling the students lawbreakers.43
The government and the CGT set a date for a labor negotiation: May 24th, and the students planned a demonstration the same night. Fifty thousand people showed up at the Gare de Lyon, and the atmosphere was rowdy as the students marched towards the Bastille. Of course the police intervened, prompting more clashes. The night became known as the Night of the Bourse. The students took over the Bourse (stock exchange) and were setting telephone boxes on fire. The police, as throughout May, were overrun by their numbers and speed. The students eventually retreated back into the Latin Quarter where the fighting continued throughout the night. Singer says, “It was an almost classic battle in the student quarter, with concussion grenades and small barricades set on fire to slow down the advance of the troops. The mopping up was particularly savage, and all that has been said earlier about the sadistic beatings inside police stations could be repeated here in stronger terms.”44
Returning to the negotiations, there were five items on the agenda: increasing social security, securing higher wages, getting shorter hours without reduction in pay, achieving full employment, and ‘free exercise of union activity within the firm’. The CGT got the government to concede to some demands, like increased wages, but nothing too spectacular given the situation, nevermind the gains achieved in 1936.45 Ross says
“What is most striking about the terms negotiated between management and union leaders is the relative poverty of the gains for workers in relation to the amplitude of the movement. A higher percentage of French workers than ever before, across every sector and in every region of the country, had been on strike for the longest time in French history. And yet the immediate principal results of the Grenelle Accords, negotiated between May 25 and 27, were a small augmentation in the minimum salary and the extension of union rights in the factories.”46
The union and the government expected the workers to accept their proposal, as did the media, who were already speculating on when the workers would return to the factories. But the workers rejected the terms of the negotiations.
“The workers’ veto was first expressed at Boulogne-Billancourt. The union leaders who went there straight from the talks could not expect any enthusiasm for the package. They had visibly rushed things through and in their strange hurry had dropped allegedly “imperative” demands… What the top CGT leaders apparently expected was a “Non, mais,” that is, an agreement to take the Grenelle propositions as the basis for further discussion. The bargaining could thus be switched from the national to branch or even factory level, and once this happened, the situation would have ceased to be explosive. In their scheme the CGT leaders made only one miscalculation: They misjudged the mood of the workers.”47
Georges Seguy, the General Secretary of the CGT who was leading the negotiations, was frequently interrupted with boos and jeers during a speech explaining the rationale behind the agreement. The workers ‘no’ massively altered the equation, and their refusal to compromise spread throughout the country.
After the failed negotiations, there was a large meeting of about ten thousand people at the Charlety Stadium in the outskirts of Paris featuring Andre Barjonet, a CGT secretary who resigned in protest over their actions in the negotiations, Maurice Labi, a leader in the chemical and glass industries union, and student leaders Sauvageot and Geismar. The crowd gathered at Charlety were coordinating next steps, and many still thought that the PCF could be dragged into revolutionary action. Some believed they wouldn’t, but thought it was important to continue pushing a revolutionary agenda even if that sacrificed short term reforms. Regardless, most members of the crowd were opposed to a parliamentary solution.48
The electoral Left, which mainly consisted of the PCF and the SFIO, was preparing a potential coalition government to overtake De Gaulle, led by Francois Mitterand, the SFIO candidate. Singer believes the Communists should have chosen Pierre Mendes-France, a sort of French New Deal-er, to serve as their grave-digger of capital. Instead, the Communists ruthlessly criticized Mendes-France and chose Mitterand as their “grave-digger.” Singer argues Mitterand was less suited as a “grave-digger” of capital because he was merely an orthodox democratic socialist politician.
On May 29, De Gaulle mysteriously fled the country without telling anyone in his immediate circles. He met with generals in different areas of France and Germany, getting reassurances that they would back him if necessary. These troops wouldn’t be enough to break the strike, however. De Gaulle decided to change his tactics, and chose to directly attack the Communist leaders. The next day, he made a brief, firm speech denouncing the Communists and affirming that his government would not abdicate.49
De Gaulle proposed a general election to be held a month later, and the PCF and CGT chose to take their chances to “seize” power there. Singer says, “May 31: This was the real end… the Communist leadership opted for the safety of parliamentary battles between frogs and mice. It chose the road of electoral defeat.”50 Heading into June, the students and their allies were determined to maintain the movement and the strike, while the CGT was looking to end it to avoid a negative image going into the elections. On June 5, some industries began to end their strikes, and the government, immediately noticing the balances of forces shifting back into their favor, began trying to end other strikes through force. In one case, the police tried breaking up the strike at the Renault car factory, but the workers resisted and even asked the students for help. The students answered their call, and together they fought back against the police, preventing the strike from ending.51 The government tried again at another factory, meeting further resistance, and in the ensuing battle the police killed two workers. The response from the CGT was weak, and together with the PCF they began openly pushing for an end to the strike to “support” their electoral push. The students believed this strategy was treasonous and defeatist.52 The contradiction between the two lines was intensifying and coming out into the open. The PCF accused the students of being anti-communist; the students called the Communist Party “strike breakers” and declared that the only anti-communists were those who refuse to see the potential for revolution.
On June 13th, the government outlawed all revolutionary groups and arrested militants while the PCF leadership did nothing. More industries began to return to work on June 17th, continuing the decline of the strike, and in all of these industries, the unions were a neutralizing force. The government also began reclaiming the former occupied buildings. In the buildup to the election, the Gaullists went all in with red-baiting, anti-communism, and the recruitment of the far right. There was some surprise within the media and political punditry to the incompetence of the PCF in the election, to which Singer replies, “if the left had an alternative, a purpose, a strategy, it would have been in power by then… fortune… favors the bold.”53
The election was a resounding win for the Gaullists, who won 43% of the vote. Not only did the PCF lose, but they also lost votes from young people and from the left-center. “In absolute figures the Communist party dropped from 5 to 4.4 million votes… The Gaullists with the official label climbed from 8.4 to 9.7 million.”54 In less than a month, a mass movement had spectacularly fizzled out.
There are many aspects to May ‘68 that deserve more attention, specifically the novel methods of organization and class struggle developed by the students and workers. One novel form of class struggle was the deployment of wildcat strikes. Badiou says the strike was unique in that it was led by groups of young workers outside of the major unions, which then had to intervene in order to take control of the strike.55 The young workers used wildcat strikes in contrast to the traditional ‘days of action’ used by the big unions. The strike was also unique in that it expanded the use of factory occupations (which happened in ‘36 and ‘47), and all the factories were decked out in red flags. Lastly,
“The question of how long the movement should last and how it should be controlled was acute. There was a contradiction between the CGT’s desire to take control, and practices that were steeped in what the historian Xavier Vigna calls ‘working-class insubordination’, and there were conflicts within the strike movement. They could be very sharp, and they are still symbolized by the Renault-Billancourt workers’ rejection of the protocols negotiated at Grenelle. Something rebelled against the attempts to find a classic negotiated settlement to the general strike.”56
Even within the strikes, there were contradictions between union leadership and the rank-and-file.
Another novel form of class struggle to emerge were the action committees developed by the students. Singer says that May ‘68 was driven by them, and they were necessary within the absence of an already existing revolutionary organization. The action committees didn’t really form until after the night of the barricade (May 10), with about 148 forming within the Paris region.57 The committees were not connected with any specific movement, and were open to all militants. They were designed as instruments of struggle, and were composed of small groups of people (10-30) that were supposed to be explicitly political.58 There were 3 types: local committees based on district, university committees divided by branch, and work committees in factories and offices. The committees were being pulled into two directions: one was to become the nucleus of a new type of organization, and the other was to focus on concrete needs through mutual aid. They chose the latter initially, but they came to realize that those they sought to help were seeking a political alternative and direction, rather than just immediate help. After the night of the Bourse (May 24), the question of a political alternative intensified as the movement came to a crossroads. However, they were too late to change their strategy, and Singer suggests that streamlining/consolidating the committees earlier would’ve helped. It’s easy to write off the committees as the failures of spontaneity, but they only emerged because of the failure of the traditional communist party to effectively intervene.
As Badiou argues, these new forms of class struggle were symptomatic of a broader trend: the death of old modes of politics and the birth of new ones. While the particularities of May ‘68 are interesting and deserve study, I will be focusing on the themes and problems that come out of May ‘68, and attempt to connect them to the present conjuncture. After all, why study history if we are not going to try to produce useful knowledge?
1. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), 60. ←
2. Singer, Prelude to Revolution, 61. ←
3. Ibid, 65. ←
4. Ibid, 65-67. ←
5. Ibid, 67. ←
6. Kristin Ross, May ‘68 and Its Afterlives, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 29. ←
7. Singer, 120. ←
8. Ibid, 122. ←
9. Singer cites the article on page 116. A French version of the article is linked here. ←
10. I immediately think of Lenin on Marx’s response to the Paris Commune: “A few months before the Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, in March 1871, a decisive battle was forced upon the workers and they accepted it, when the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the proletarian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm, in spite of unfavorable auguries. Marx did not persist in the pedantic attitude of condemning an ‘untimely’ movement as did the ill-famed Russian renegade from Marxism, Plekhanov, who in November 1905 wrote encouragingly about the workers’ and peasants’ struggle, but after December 1905 cried, liberal fashion: ‘They should not have taken up arms.’ Marx, however, was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards, who, as he expressed it, “stormed heaven”. Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx endeavored to analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it.” – Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, (1917), 27, accessed from marxists.org. ←
11. Singer, 122-123. ←
12. Ibid, 124. ←
13. Ibid, 125. ←
14. Ibid. ←
15. Ibid. ←
16. Ibid, 126. ←
17. Ibid. ←
18. Ibid, 128. ←
19. More parallels with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. ←
20. Singer, 128. ←
21. Ibid, 128-129. ←
22. Ibid. ←
23. Ibid, 130. ←
24. Ibid, 132. ←
25. Ibid, 133. ←
26. Ibid, 134. ←
27. Ibid, 136. ←
28. Ibid, 137. ←
29. Ibid, 138. ←
30. Ibid, 140. ←
31. Ibid, 143. ←
32. Ibid, 147. ←
33. Ibid, 149. ←
34. Jonah Birch, “How Beautiful It Was,” Jacobin Magazine, May 23, 2018. ←
35. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010), 29. ←
36. Singer, 157-158. ←
37. Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.” ←
38. 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. ←
39. Singer, 154. ←
40. Ibid. ←
41. Ibid, 166. ←
42. Ibid, 169. ←
43. Ibid, 171. ←
44. Ibid, 179. ←
45. Singer says, “France had been paralyzed by a general strike, even if not quite on the same scale. Once before, the official leaders of the labor movement – at that time socialists and Communists – saved the existing system around a conference table in neighboring Rue de Varenne, only in a different palace, the Prime Minister’s Hotel Matignon (hence the name Matignon Agreements). But there was one basic difference. The socialist Leon Blum was then presiding over the government. The popular front of Communists, socialists, and Radicals had won the election before the strike. In fact the workers occupied factories because they felt they had won and thought they had seized power. They hadn’t. Even so, the capitalists then had to pay quite a price for survival. Collective bargaining, a forty-hour week, two weeks holiday with pay, to mention but a few of these gains – these were considerable conquests for that period. This time the workers did not trust the Gaullist government in power. What were they to be offered for giving up the strike and the occupation?” p. 181. ←
46. Ross, May ‘68, 68. ←
47. Singer, 184. ←
48. Ibid, 190. ←
49. After the speech, there was a large rally in support of De Gaulle that consisted of hundreds of thousands in Paris. The majority of the crowd were conservatives, moderates, and far-rightists who were waving French flags and singing the National Anthem. Many assert that this marked the end of the May ‘68 movement, such as Mitchell Abidor, editor of May Made Me, in his appearance on the Rev Left Radio podcast. Singer disagrees with this narrative, as the PCF and CGT still could have pushed the strike forward if they wanted to. ←
50. Singer, 205. ←
51. Ibid, 208. ←
52. Ibid, 209. ←
53. Ibid, 215. ←
54. Ibid, 216. ←
55. Badiou, 29. ←
56. Ibid. ←
57. Singer, 270. ←
58. Ibid, 271. ←