How May 1968 shaped our world
Outrage against war, against a philosophical and social hegemony that had outlived its usefulness, students converged in the streets and campuses of Paris
One way or another, for better or for worse, we are all children of May 1968. But what was May 1968, really about? Delightful contrarian Michel Onfray – France’s foremost contemporary philosopher – correctly identified the quintessence of May 1968: a revolt against Judeo-Christian civilization.
It was a rebellion, Onfray maintains, against every form of authority, and a way of life codified under St Paul: hatred of this world, veneration of the afterlife, detestation of the flesh, dismissal of women, refusal of desire, interdiction of pleasure and sexuality, celebration of suffering, the cult of sin, the teaching of submission, the religion of work, the legitimacy of slavery.
It all harks back to the Roman emperor Constantine, whose conversion in the 4th century AD was the foundation stone of Judeo-Christian hegemony.
May 1968 proposed exactly the opposite: attention to the here and now, passion for the flesh, love of women, a philosophy of desire, the quest for pleasure, a taste for life lived to the fullest, sexual liberation, the refusal of suffering, the abolition of sin, transgression of all interdiction, refusal of submission, refusal of blind obedience, the enjoyment of free time without constraints, the abolition of slavery.
It was what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse had defined, in caps, as “The Great Refusal” (see part 2 of this essay).
Slogans blooming like flowers were all over the walls of Paris. Dreams are reality. The walls are ears, your ears are walls. A barricade closes a street but opens a path. The tears of philistines are nectar of the Gods. No more churches. I decree a state of permanent happiness. Imagination takes power. Under the asphalt, the beach. It’s forbidden to forbid. Be realist, demand the impossible. Death is necessarily a counter-revolution. I am a Marxist of the Groucho faction.
Charles Baudelaire provided this quote: God is a scandal, a scandal that makes money. And also Friedrich Nietzsche, in a staircase of the occupied Odeon theater: One must carry in oneself a chaos to be able to insert into the world a dancing star.
The students sang The Internationale, which happened to be the anthem of the left everywhere as well as in the USSR; all these political actors, crucially, did not support their movement (and worked hard to discredit it). But the French twist is that The Internationale was written during the 1871 Paris commune; thus it was regarded as the ultimate song against authority.
It was a visual feast. The venerable École des Beaux Arts established an Atelier Populaire, producing between May and June 1968 more than 350 different silkscreen posters – arguably the most extraordinary display of political graphic art in modern history (hugely influential on everything afterward, from punk to Banksy).
How to become a dancing star
It all started with sex. The facts are vastly documented. By 1968 there were 530,000 students in terribly overcrowded universities across France, 160,000 in the University of Paris system alone – an even more autocratic environment than the Ivy League. That’s why, when they started to hit the streets, students attracted so many demonstrators.
Nanterre University, on the outskirts of Paris, was a drab concrete hell facing a slum overflowing with North Africans. The most important issue – coed dorms – started to catch fire in March. No boys in girl’s rooms; no girls in boy’s rooms (except with parental permission); no sex, and nothing to do (planting the seeds of punks’ boredom and “No future for you” ethics almost a decade later). In contrast, at the Sorbonne students got their kicks around the seductive heart of the Latin Quarter.
For the French Ministry of Interior, “student agitation” was all about a tiny band of radicals trying to clone the civil disobedience that was raging in Rome, Berlin and Berkeley.
And yes, Columbia, Berkeley, Berlin, Rome were all in awe – especially when word got out that the French students had managed to enlist the support of the working class. The honeymoon, though, was brief. French workers and their unions wanted father figure General – and President – Charles de Gaulle out, for sure. But most of all they wanted a better deal in the workplace, higher wages and increased holiday pay.
There was a failed attempt at French university reform in 1967. That led to the formation of a hard node of enragés (“the angry ones”; an echo of the French Revolution). At the start they were only 25 – for instance wreaking havoc in lecture halls in the name of Che Guevara. But these 25 grew into more than a thousand in March; by May they were at least 50,000; and by the end of May no fewer than 10 million, paralyzing the whole of France.
The students in Nanterre believed themselves to be “direct-action revolutionaries” – a concept popularized by Regis Debray, who had befriended Che in Bolivia. World War II icon de Gaulle. for his part, was overwhelmed. The only thing he cared about was law and order, because Paris was hosting the Vietnam War peace talks.
Paris was crammed with global media covering the Vietnam talks. When the Ministry of Education decided to shut down Nanterre, the heart of the action switched to the Sorbonne. And then the government closed the Sorbonne for the first time in its venerable 700-year history
Paris was crammed with global media covering the Vietnam talks. When the Ministry of Education decided to shut down Nanterre, the heart of the action switched to the Sorbonne. The police invaded the Sorbonne. And then the government closed the Sorbonne for the first time in its venerable 700-year history. Jean-Paul Sartre supported the students. But he could not possibly be arrested. De Gaulle’s words, according to legend, were “One doesn’t arrest Voltaire.”
By now, in tandem with the soundtrack – from The Byrds and Steppenwolf to Hendrix and Cream – a solidarity current flowed among all the student movements around the world, in essence because of TV, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, or Dany the Red, later admitted (“We were the first television generation. We had a relationship with what our imagination produced from seeing the pictures of each other on television”).
See you on the barricades, babe
As compiled by a delightful book for American audiences connecting France with what was going on in the United States, by 1968 the Vietnam War was costing US$30 billion a year. Washington was financing the war with gold reserves – which had plunged to half of the post-World War II high of $24.6 billion. The US might have been about to run out of gold – and the price of gold was bound to skyrocket.
The My Lai massacre – a slaughter of nearly 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians by the US Army’s 23rd Infantry Division – happened in March 1968. Up to 56 million American homes had TV, and satellites for the first time were relaying footage from Japan to New York City in real time. The Pentagon could not possibly control the PR war any more. The entire March issue of Harper’s magazine was led by a devastating Norman Mailer essay praising the anti-war movement.
Already in February, at least 100,000 people had marched in Paris under pouring rain waving North Vietnamese flags and chanting “US Go Home” – echoing the “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” sung at a previous demonstration in Berlin. American soldiers were applying for asylum in France, Sweden and Canada. Robert Kennedy, then senator for New York, had stated in Chicago in early February that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.
Protesting against the war in Vietnam may have eventually metastasized into street violence in Paris, but that was only one aspect of May 1968. TV networks from all over the world were roaming Paris. It was impossible to find better TV than the anti-riot police (the CNRS) in pitch battles against stone-throwing middle class students in the Latin Quarter.
Yet, in parallel, even more important was an explosion of The Word, a sort of non-stop proto-Facebook live. Suddenly, in a rigid, highly codified society still stuck in the rural, Catholic mores of the 19th century, everyone in Paris was talking like mad – on the Metro, in the queue at the cheese shop, on the barricades, and mostly in the occupied Odeon theater (last month I had the chance to witness a fantastic re-creation by graduating students at the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts).
In a Gramscian sense, the old order – based on tradition and unquestioned authority – collapsed. No wonder a great deal of freedoms taken for granted by millennials in the young 21st century exist because of May 1968.
But as much as the students yearned for it, the revolution – televised or not – did not happen in May 1968. That was a volcanic eruption against a stagnant, suffocating system, a cultural revolt drenched in sex, music, fashion, esthetics – and by the way not a CIA plot previewing the 21st century color revolutions. Then what came afterward was, predictably, cosmetic reform – not revolution.
In a Freudian sense, if May 1968 killed the Father Figure (at least in the West), the offspring today is a multitude of neoliberal barbarisms, with defunct paternalist Capital opening the playing field to the brutality of hyper-concentrating global finance Masters of the Universe.
Half a century ago, baby-boomers pampered by new, lush consumer society also thought they could steer a historical turnaround by politically revolting against both imperialisms – Soviet and Western; in fact revolting against the entire Cold War framework. Now, in a post-truth vacuum occasionally filled by xenophobic populisms, crass “democraships” and the gospel of TINA (“there is no alternative”), the prospects for a May 1968 revisited are dim.
It’s a recurrent theme among millennials to despise 68ers for their dismal collective failure to change The System. Yet it will be up to millennials to come up with a strong, credible sociopolitical alternative – complete with its own kick-ass political economy.
Across the West, that could spring up not from elite universities, but from young masses of immigrant sons and daughters left to rot in dystopian peripheries. What they need is political leadership and a roadmap – as it’s always possible to let the chaos raging inside oneself bloom and generate one, two, a million dancing stars.