Nanterre is not the familiar Paris of boulevards and cafes. The Eiffel Tower can be viewed but so far away that it easily fades in the haze. The university at Nanterre is not academically marginal, especially in the humanities. Its great moment in public consciousness came in May 1968 when a protest became an uprising that seriously challenged not only the Fifth Republic but the institutions of society.
A few weeks before, in March, an anarchist group at Nanterre issued a manifesto advocating a freer atmosphere in the intellectual and social life on campus. A protest at the segregation of the sexes erupted into open rebellion which spread rapidly and spontaneously throughout the universities and lycees of Paris, and then, inevitably, the whole of France. What was taking shape was, in RÃ©gis Debray’s memorable phrase, ‘revolution within the revolution.’
The main signatory of the March manifesto, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, became the public face of the uprising. The world watched with astonishment as the protest movement took on a revolutionary character as industrial workers in their millions walked out of the factories. Within days what had begun as a cri de coeur from the idealistic young became civil unrest that posed an actual threat to the power of the state. General de Gaulle was seen to panic when he fled the country. All attempts to trivialize events founders on that fact. Collapse and surrender were a breath away. Indeed there was one night when the rebels could have seized power without opposition had they known it.
They did not know this until later. The state, however, was not one man. A state is a network of very powerful forces that were soon able to take control. The CRS, armoured and armed, were waiting in the side streets for the order to crush the rebellion with all necessary force.
De Gaulle returned. Order was restored. Cohn-Bendit, a German citizen, was deported. Elections were called. Inevitably the governing party won because constitutional governance favours stability and continuity. It was an uncertain victory, however, for within a year de Gaulle retired to read Shakespeare and gaze out of the window at the snow. He was a fallen oak, in Malraux’s memorable phrase. Dignified but uncomprehending in defeat, he faded into history as the aloof reactionary who failed to speak to the future of the nation he loved.
De Gaulle’s justification, his ‘idea of France’, was of the past. The general’s romantic nationalism had no capacity to resolve increasing social tensions. The hero of the Liberation in 1944 became the autocrat of 1968. The Fifth Republic which he had created a decade earlier was intended to synthesize left and right into a coherent, unifying polity. De Gaulle survived fascist plots to oust this ‘traitor’, but he could not survive his own arrogance. He never entered a French university as President, not even the Sorbonne where once he had taught History [without learning all its lessons].
He did not speak to the young. He failed to call the young rebels in for talks. He wrote to Sartre [whom he had encountered at the Sorbonne many years before], addressing him as ‘Cher MaÃ®tre’. Sartre wanted no such honour. Sartre did speak to the young idealists, and continued to do so. Jean-Louis Barrault, the doyen of French theatre, addressed the crowd occupying his theatre. The young idealists persuaded him to tolerate their carnival of protest. For his magnanimity Barrault was dismissed from his official position. Another hope was blown away.
The most famous phrase of May 1968 was ‘Imagination has seized power’, but the response was generally unimaginative. To the right the uprising was irrational and destructive. The influential conservative thinker Raymond Aron dismissed it as a ‘psychodrama’. The old left saw it as directionless protest that could not succeed without leadership and control. There was a consensus that the uprising was at best adventurism and at worst a mere enactment of positions and attitudes not seriously argued because not truly believed. In this [cynical] dismissal, far from being a revolutionary movement, the rising was simply a series of gestures, something akin to the ‘happenings’ in Anglo-American counter-culture.
The evidence suggests that within the fervour there was a truly revolutionary element. The creative energy was extraordinary. There was substance behind the exuberance manifested in a street culture that the official media could neither understand nor control. The great mistake of the rebels was to regard these channels as irrelevant. Had they taken over the official media they might have turned aspiration into achievement.
That raises the question of what would have happened next. The tendrils of a truly revolutionary awareness were waiting for their moment. Within the student movement and to a lesser extent within the striking workers there were the possibilities emerging of a break in the social continuum, of a leap into the future. It would be a future in defiance of reason and law and politesse. Its course could be determined only by the official response. Any hope that existing power was going to generously concede was naÃ¯ve. Even the avowedly liberal was likely to show its true face.
That face was brutal in its suppression. There is every likelihood that a rearguard action, possibly leading to civil war, would be the consequence of imagination actually seizing power. NATO perhaps would have held its hand for a well-founded fear of igniting protest in member countries. The question is whether the Fifth Republic had the will to maintain a prolonged defence of its seemingly fragile hold on reality. Conflict might have been averted, and a dream might have been realized. Who knows?
In the event the Fifth Republic continued, although traditional culture was eroded by an increasingly anonymous technocracy that neither side in May 1968 envisioned. The failure, therefore, of the uprising was also a defeat for conservative French nationalism. In exile Daniel Cohn-Bendit espoused the emerging and vibrant Green politics. Far from fading into the predicted [and hoped-for] obscurity, Cohn-Bendit progressed to become a respected Green member of the European Parliament. He has received honours from several European academic and other institutions, without compromising his ideals. On a personal level Daniel Cohn-Bendit was the eventual victor of May 1968. A failure of strategy was transformed into a credible position in the long term. Social outrage became a dignified polity that is sure to survive.
It survives, however, as an oppositional force. May 1968 enacted the fundamental questioning that engaged the likes of Derrida and Sarraute. Beneath the surface of things lie the structures of deeper truth where the rich life of the psyche may be explored. Such questioning, intellectually reasoned and cogently argued, inspired the rising which in turn added a dynamic reality to ideas often seen as academic and abstruse. In polemic and carnival the young rebels made a forceful reality of ideas. The cafÃ© philo movement is an inheritor of this popular intellectual ferment.
To regard May 1968 as an abject failure without anything of consequence beyond an evident collapse is to ignore wilfully the wider historical perspective. The embers remained. Within a decade the Nouveau Philosophes, many of them veterans of the uprising, issued challenges to the established ideologies of left and right. The break with the seemingly impregnable orthodoxies proved incendiary. Revolution within the revolution indeed. To have witnessed personally, even at the margins, this new outrage was to discover an inviolable influence on one’s life and thought thereafter.
Cohn-Bendit set the scene. Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative [rapidly published and translated] argued with striking maturity of intellect that the October Revolution failed to guard against a corruption of the humane, Socialist ideals that were its reason for being. This determination not to repeat an apparently doomed trajectory was the spirit of 1968. This was sustained and developed by other veterans of the barricades, notably Bernard-Henri Levy.
It is possible to argue that hindsight can distort a well-intentioned reading of history. In place of an actual, if imperfect, project we may find nothing more substantial than an idealized polity that proves elusive in the world of tasks.
Levy does not fall into that trap. His life’s work has been a negotiation between three positions: what is actual; what is possible; and what is an impediment to understanding. The same may be hoped of all of us if and when history summons our resolve.
What would have happened at the May Revolution succeeded is a matter of conjecture.
There are a number of plausible scenarios. One thing is certain: the revolutionary impulse would have gained rapid momentum, spreading throughout Europe, east and west. How the Great Powers would have reacted is not anyone’s guess. Everybody knows they would have sought to retain power at all costs. In the event the power of money and materialism absorbed almost everything.
‘Today,’ Levy has observed, ‘everything is business or show business.’ A philistine technocracy and a middlebrow meritocracy have overtaken Western consciousness.
The humane spirit of Enlightenment is exhausted. In its place we see the pursuit of trivia and personal acquisition. This makes radical ideals not irrelevant but urgently necessary. The triumph of reaction is surely an illusion. War, famine and climate change do not suggest a secure and prosperous world. They surely signify a climacteric.
That is not the self-image of the age, however. The word revolution is casually thrown to describe successive waves of reaction. We live in an age of counter-revolution that cannot speak of the events of May 1968 with any depth of feeling – except uneasy derision and an inescapable fear. Reportage will skim the surface. TV documentaries on the fiftieth anniversary will have titles like The Revolution That Never Was. The usual suspects will speak and write with condescension of books they have not read and of things they observe but do not approach with clarity. ‘Was it an existential crisis?’ will be asked, with oblique reference to one among many traditions of relevant thought.
To answer the question: No, the critical time is yet to come. May 1968 was a moment in history that created another history not yet realized. Constructing a credible vision of a coherent, co-operative society is the task of a lifetime. The barricades have become the debating positions of the long transmission of culture from the selfish to the generous.
Of course the West is directed by superficial and regressive slogan-mongers whose words are underwritten by international finance and transnational corporations.
But it is the gifted and the articulate who will have the last word. That word will change everything.Tags: Europe
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall