VI. To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to
take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism
it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust
itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of
tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as
the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver
tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the
Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the
Anti-christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in
the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the
enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
VII. Fustel de Coulanges recommended to the historian, that if he wished to reexperience an epoch, he should remove everything he knows about the later course of history from his
head. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical
materialism has broken. It is a procedure of empathy. Its origin is the heaviness at heart,
the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly
flashes by. The theologians of the Middle Ages considered it the primary cause of
melancholy. Flaubert, who was acquainted with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront
combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [Few people can guess how
despondent one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.] The nature of this melancholy
becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of
historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who
currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy
with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite
enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches
in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled
underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession.
They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon
with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel
of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its
existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the
nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture,
which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from
barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one
set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as
measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
Walter Benjamin, On the concept of history
To speak of May 68 is not to merely mark an anniversary; it is to keep alive a memory of rebellion for the present, as present.
The politics of memory is often reduced to commemoration, when in fact it hides a politics of struggle over what remains possible still. And before the erasure of memory of dissidence and disobedience, we celebrate the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the french uprising, however modestly, to keep a past, present.
The effort to domesticate the events of May has been constant, above all in france. What was the largest general strike in the country’s history is reduced to a middle class student rebellion, what was a movement that echoed struggles elsewhere (above all, anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam) is dismissed as idiosyncratically national, what spilled over any calendarisation of the events’ resonances is reduced to the months of May and June of 1968, what was an essentially anti-authoritarian political movement is caricaturised as concluding with philanthropic concerns for human rights, or worse, in hedonistic narcissism.
If we then engage in this exercise of celebration, it is because our political horizon (or the political horizon of those who stubbornly insist on imagining a world beyond capital) remains that of May 68, a political horizon far more vast than the caricatures.
The political lessons of May for the Left are far reaching: the illusions of an intrinsically revolutionary subject (of class, race, ethnicity, colonisation), the vanguard role of a revolutionary organisation (party or labour union), the primacy of the factory space as the location of revolutionary struggle and the secondariness of all other spaces of oppression, revolution as the seizure of central power, all of them die. And if this death is not yet recognised, fifty years on (as it was not at the time, by many), then “ideology” is indeed stronger than “reality”, or, to put matters differently, the Left is more comatose than those it supposedly struggles against.
We share below, in translation, a testimonial and an analysis of the events of May-June of 1968 by Tomás Ibáñez (a las barricadas 26/02/2018).
The movement’s only chance is the disorder that lets men speak freely, and that can result in a form of self-organization.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, interviewed by Jean-Paul Sartre
A libertarian gale that came to stay
Lighting the fuse
It’s a Friday. Friday, the 3rd of May to be precise, but this morning I am going to arrive late at work. Before getting to the Laboratoire de Psychologie Sociale [of the University of Paris], where I had been hired soon after completing my BA, I stopped for some time in the patio of the Sorbonne. Students convoked to protest the closing of the University of Nanterre the day before had begun to fill the place. Some bring batons and helmets before the possibility of an imminent attack by the fascist commandos. Many of my comrades from the LEA and the 22M  are among the some 400 students who will continue to gather throughout the day. The situation of almost all of the leaders of the different extreme-left political student groups who responded to the call to protest will have a bearing, as will be seen later, on subsequent events.
My blood boils at the thought that I cannot stay with my comrades, but as the Laboratoire is only 30 metres from the entrance to the patio of the Sorbonne, my comings and goings to see how things are unfolding will be constant, until the moment when the police block the entrance. Between revolutionary songs, harangues and debates, the comrades are set to maintain the occupation for as long as it is necessary. Hours go by, the fascists don’t show, but in their place are hundreds of riot police and at five in the afternoon they begin to lock up students in their police vans. They only arrest the men though, for an earlier negotiation had concluded with the agreement that all of the female students would be able to leave the Sorbonne freely.
A serious mistake on the part of the police! The women who were able to leave immediately join students who are in the vicinity of the Sorbonne and begin to energetically harass the police and their vehicles with cries of “free our comrades”. A strange work day, I arrived late and I left early to join the groups that begin to throw objects of all kinds against the police cars.
Cat and mouse runs, charges, teargas grenades, the windshield of a police van shatters into a thousand pieces injuring the driver. People tear up the steel grills around the trees and throw them on the pavement of the Boulevard Saint Michel to slow up the police vans. In the Place de la Sorbonne, a Trotskyist student leader, who had escaped the police roundup, tries actively and with the intent of defusing the situation to have us stop provoking (sic!) the police. I then understand that if the student leaders had not found themselves removed from the scenario of struggle, that this last would have come to a quick end. In any case, after some four hours of intense confrontations, these close with many lightly wounded, some 600 arrested, of which 27 are held in police stations, and 14 will be judged and convicted within the following 48 hours.
This was the day when the fuse of May caught fire, lit by people who rebelled spontaneously against repression, and who did not hesitate to move from the clamour of protest to physical actions, not to ask for something, or to demand “the freedom of the detained”, but to try to free them.
And so May 68 started, beginning in this way, and rapidly spreading to the whole of France, plunging the entire country into a splendid month and a half of mass demonstrations, university and factory occupations, and violent confrontations with the police, with epic moments, such as the famous night of the barricades of Friday, the 10th of May, when the Latin Quarter burned and when Paris could woke up to contemplate a Dantesque scenario of struggle.
In historical phenomenon like the Revolution of 1789, the Commune, the Revolution of 1917, there is always something that belongs to the order of an event, irreducible to social determinisms, to causal series. Historians are not fond of this aspect: they restore causalities after the fact. But the event itself is disconnected from or in rupture with causalities: it is a bifurcation, a deviation in relation to the laws, an unstable state that opens up a new field of possibilities. … In this sense, an event can be thwarted, repressed, recuperated, betrayed; it nevertheless carries with it something that cannot be overtaken, forgotten. It is those who would renounce it who say: it is of the past. The event itself however may very well be old, but it does not allow itself to be left behind: it is an opening upon the possible. It carries over into the interior of individuals as well as into the density of a society.
… May 68 is … of the order of a pure event, free of all normal or normative causality. Its history is a “succession of instabilities and amplified fluctuations”. … [I]t was a phenomenon of clairvoyance, as if a society suddenly saw everything that contained the intolerable and also saw the possibility of something else. It is a collective phenomenon in form of: “Give me what is possible, or I will suffocate …”. The possible does not pre-exist, it is created by the event. It is a question of life. The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity (new relations with the body, time, sexuality, the milieu, culture, work …).
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mai 68 n’a pas eu lieu
An event in every way
Nothing presaged that a conflict, which at its origin was student based, could spread so quickly in the social fabric, nor that it could spur on the working class, or that it would end up acquiring such enormous proportions, or that it would manage to ignite a whole country and paralyze it for weeks. Nobody had imagined that something similar could happen in a country that was relatively prosperous, and where the dominant tone was one of boring monotony.
If May rose up as an absolutely unexpected phenomenon, it was precisely because it had to do with an authentic event, that is, a creation which, in this case, was historical. It is not by chance that the concept of creation points to what does not preexist its actual coming into being, that it is not prefigured in any of its antecedent conditions. And it was for this reason that not only did May cause surprise and stupefaction throughout the world, but that it also left its very protagonists astonished.
That perplexity was not limited to the beginnings of May, for what was happening continued to be unimaginable and disconcerting even to ourselves at the end of each day of struggle, and with the beginning of a new struggle each day whose outcome in the course of the hours was unknown, and which appeared never to slow or come to an end.
In fact, if we want to define it by what was most essential, we should emphasise that May emerged as a wild demand for freedom, and that it was a radical revolt against authority, as much against that which manifested itself in school classrooms, as that which reigned in workshops and that which saturated everyday life. It was characterised by an authentic anti-authoritarian outburst and therefore it may be considered as genuinely libertarian. The resonances of May disseminated libertarian expressions everywhere, uprooting them from the exiguous ghetto where they lived, and suddenly projecting them through the multitudes for people to appropriate and reinvent in their own fashion.
If it is true that May began in the universities, it was nevertheless the factory occupations that gave it the energy to persist beyond the first night of the barricades. In the reopened Sorbonne and occupied the previous night, the deafening clamour with which the news of the occupation of the Sud Aviation and the detention by workers of the factory director was received, clearly indicated that it was going to be the workers’ movement that was going to give continuity and strength to the explosion of the 3rd of May.
There is no doubt that it was the factory occupations, with millions of workers on strike, that gave force to the events of May in contemporary society, both in intensity, as in duration. It was the world of labour that gave to the moment the dimension of a Historical event, a dimension that it would never have attained had it remained a simple student revolt.
However, even though it was the world of labour that allowed May to acquire the depth specific to an authentic historical event, it was nonetheless not the world of labour that marked it with the characteristics that make it a political event of first importance, that profoundly changed inherited schema and which had effects that still persist.
What made these possible and what constitutes the originality of May was the creativity deployed in subversive actions by the innumerable activists of May. They were secondary school students, university students, young workers, men and women who gathered in the assemblies, who organised and maintained the occupations, and who animated the neighbourhood action committees, without, in the majority of cases, these activists having had the minimum of political experience before the beginning of May. Their radical nonconformity, their creative and transgressive disposition, far from exhausting itself in mere protest, led to May opening up paths of innovation and change in multiple areas, as much in politics, as in education, in interpersonal relations and in daily life.
What animated us was the conviction that one had to put an end to places. In the general sense, it is what the beautiful word communism denotes, an egalitarian society, a society which by its very movement brings down walls and separations, a society of polyvalence and variable trajectories, at work, as in life. But “communism” also means: forms of political organisation of which the political model is not that of a hierarchy of places. … May 68 was that: an ensemble of experiences that testified to the fact that the impossible overthrow of social places was politically possible, through new forms of speaking and an uncertain search for forms of organisation adequate to the novelty of the event.
Alain Badiou, L’hypothèse communiste
What May taught us
May introduced into society seeds of change that had a bearing on multiple domains, from education to culture, to sexual identities, family relations and styles of life. It is not by chance that the Right does not hesitate to attribute to the consequences of May the erosion of the values of “order” and lack of respect for authority. But beside these global effects, May also taught us some things that changed our way of acting, of organising ourselves and of thinking politically.
Independently of the fact that it opened new channels and sowed some of the seeds that would give life to the new social movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, May was also extremely important for everything that it declared obsolete, for the paths that it closed off, for the practices of struggle, for the organisational models, and for the political conceptions that it disqualified. Thus, for example, it undermined the legitimacy of markedly avant-gardist organizational structures that attributed to themselves the role of leading the masses towards their liberation, because they thought they possessed the right line, because they thought that they were endowed with the correct political knowledge, and because they considered themselves to be privileged in the knowledge of the most appropriate way to follow.
Its anti-authoritarian impetus unveiled what weighed down the antagonists baggage, the authoritarian features of the revolutionary movement itself – and at times, anarchism as well -, making it impossible to continue with inherited schema that were declared by the movement to be dead. Among other things, May put an end to the long fifty year seduction exercised on the radical political imaginary by the Leninist model, giving wing to the libertarian forms of this imaginary. Its success was such that Marxist organisations had no other choice but to incorporate hitherto libertarian tonalities into their own discourses. And they today offer us the unusual and paradoxical spectacle of wanting to recuperate and appropriate an event that precisely invalidated some of their principles.
May also taught us, for example, that the social energies necessary for the constitution of powerful popular movements rise up from within the creation of specific situations, and do not necessarily precede them. It is not that these energies exist in a latent state, and that they free themselves when they encounter the coming together of certain conditions. It is rather that these energies gain form in the very process of creating specific situations, in a self-sustaining manner, sometimes losing strength and, again growing rapidly, as occurs with storms. These are therefore energies that can always appear at any time, even though in the instant immediately before, they exist nowhere.
During the events of May we could see how these social energies formed themselves when, for example, the instituted is overtaken, when a determined space is removed from the apparatuses of domination, emptying it of the power that invests it, and creating, literally, a “power vacuum“. Yet, more broadly, if the enormous social energy that the events of May propelled were undetectable before they erupted, it was because this energy did not previously exist. It was the very successes of May, the practices that developed therein, the formulas that were thought and that were expressed throughout, that gave body to a multitudinous and diverse collective subject that existed nowhere before the events themselves that gave shape to it.
In fact, the movement was able to advance until it finally reached its limits, because it constructed its path on the march. But this not starting from a project that ever preexisted the initial mobilization. It was rather built, rectified and formed within the bosom of the creativity of the everyday. It was that doing while doing that gave life to the movement and allowed it to go around inventively one obstacle after the other, which emerged along its path.
By this manner, what May made completely clear was that the “revolutionary subject” does not preexist the revolution. It instead constitutes itself in the heart of the very revolutionary process. It follows from the process, because it is the revolution that creates it in the course of its own path.
Coming back now to less general considerations, it has to be added that May made manifest that the mere fact of subverting normal functions, of disrupting established uses, of occupying spaces, of transforming places of passage into places of encounter and speech, is able to unleash a collective creativity that immediately invents new ways of extending subversion and having it proliferate. As it also happens that the liberated spaces engender new relations, create new social ties which reveal themselves to be incomparably more satisfactory than those that existed previously. People experience in these spaces the feeling that they live a distinct life in which they enjoy what they do, discover new incentives and throw themselves into a profound personal transformation that occurs furthermore in very little time.
May of 68 was a struggle, at times violent, bitter, tense, exhausting, demanding, and full of experiences, as with all struggles. But it was also a fiesta, an experience that brought with it pleasure and an enormous feeling of joy. It transmitted with clarity to us that we should not postpone until the end of the struggle the pleasure of tasting its eventual results, but that the rewards arose from within our actions, that they were part of what the latter gave us every day. May showed us, accordingly, that it is those actions that bear concrete results, here and now, that are capable of motivating people, of inciting them to go further, and allow them to see that other forms of life are possible, and therefore desirable. But it also warned us that for those concrete realisations to occur, people need, imperatively, to feel that they are the protagonists, to decide for themselves, and it is when they are really the protagonists and when they effectively feel themselves to be so, that their degree of involvement and commitment can be without limits.
Lastly, May emphasised the fact, as anarchism had not tired of repeating, that domination is not limited to the sphere of production relations, but is exercised on a multiplicity of planes, and that resistance has to manifest itself on each and every one of those planes. A new political subjectivity of antagonism thus began to be outlined, and new scenarios were opened for its deployment. Because, in fact, when the horizon of antagonistic politics widens to cover all the areas where domination and discrimination are exercised, it is, then, all of the aspects of daily life that are part of its field of intervention. And what is accordingly configured is a new relationship between life, on the one hand, and politics, on the other hand, that cease to occupy, at that very moment, separate spaces.
“Without a project”: that was the trait, both distressing and fortunate, of an incomparable form of society that did not allow itself to be grasped, that was not called upon to subsist, to install itself, through multiple “committees” by means of which a disordered-order, an imprecise specialisation is simulated. Contrary to the “traditional revolutions”, it was not only a matter of taking power to replace it by another, … but of manifesting oneself, outside of any utilitarian interest; a possibility of being-together that gave to everyone the right to equality in fraternity through the freedom of speech that each raised.
Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable
The March 22 movement
From the moment that May began, the “March 22 movement” was always at its epicentre, and it extinguished itself by choice – self-dissolution – when May abandoned the streets, the universities and the factories, after having sown in society very long-term effects.
However, before evoking some of its characteristics, it is appropriate to briefly situate this movement that was as ephemeral and as intense as an explosion, but whose importance and originality is indisputable.
The prolonged student agitation that shook for months the University of Nanterre, on the extreme outskirts of Paris, provided the breeding ground for the 22nd of March, the day in which more than a hundred students occupied the administrative building of the university to demand the liberation of one of their comrades, Xavier Langlade, detained two days earlier for an attack on the offices of “American Express” by the CVN (Comité Vietnam National, of Trotskyist affiliation). The assembly that took place during the occupation concluded with a call signed by the 142 students present. And so was born a movement that called itself “the 22nd of March movement” and which from that moment on lead the agitation in the university, capable of calling assemblies of 1,500 students, as the one gathered on the 2nd of April.
The driving force and the animators of the movement were basically the militants of the LEA (Liaison des Étudiants Anarchistes) who had a certain influence in the university and who had as members, for example, Daniel Cohn Bendit, who became the most popular icon of May 68, and activists of the Trotskyist LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), along with numerous “non-organised” students.
From the first moment, the 22nd of March movement constituted itself in the form of a non-centralised, non-hierarchical, horizontal organisation, grounded in non-sectarian and transversal (ideologically speaking) assemblies, with fluid structures and without delegated authorities. The internal differences between activists did not arise from the positions occupied in a supposed organisational organigram, but from the functions originating in concrete tasks, limited in time, taken on by teams of work named in assembly and that included, in fact, all the volunteers who put themselves forward to carry out these tasks.
Not only was there nothing that resembled a “central committee,” or a “permanent secretariat,” or things of the kind, but there was no formal affiliation, with corresponding membership cards, appointments and fees. Those who attended the assemblies and participated in their actions were part of “March 22”. In fact, the borders of the movement were so permeable that in the Parisian phase of “March 22”, that is, the one that extended from the closure of Nanterre University on May 2, until the end of the occupations in June, many of its members were not students of Nanterre, and in some cases, were not even students.
It was an organization that neither mythologised nor fetishised itself, nor did it aim to endure in time beyond the period in which it could have practical utility. In fact, the self-dissolution of the March 22 movement took place, a few months after its creation, in an environment that was much more festive than traumatic.
Among the characteristics of the March 22 movement was the demand, and the effective exercise, of direct democracy, as well as a strong prejudice against leaderships and the exercise of power. For example, to deactivate the media role that was given to Cohn Bendit, he was replaced in some press conferences, called in his name, by other members of March 22 who declared to journalists, “we are Cohn Bendit.”
Direct action was included in the movement’s agenda, exercised without mediation by the interested parties themselves, outside institutional channels. And, under the name of “exemplary action”, what was intended were actions that others could carry out elsewhere, adapting them to their own circumstances. And if these actions managed to stop or hinder the normal functioning of some element of the system, all the better, because then new situations were created, capable of generating new dynamics.
March 22 never sought to speak in the name of others, or on behalf of others, whether students in general or the working class. It always spoke in its own name. And nor did it accept that others speak in its name. It was not by chance that a substantial part of March 22 developed a powerful critique of the avant-gardism.
The mixing, or the hybridization of genres, was practiced; political discourse was not incompatible with festive experiences; the most selfless commitment could be perfectly combined with the refusal to take oneself too seriously, and nonconformity went hand in hand with challenge, provocation, insolence, laughter, parody, and the ridicule of both institutions and overly stale values.
Three years before 1968, the “anarchists” of the Complutense University of Madrid began a struggle that anticipated certain aspects of what was later the “March 22 movement”, and that is why it is worth remembering here some of the approaches that outline a certain “family relationship” between the two experiences.
For them, it was a matter of escaping the two principal characteristics of the political organisations of the extreme Left: the first was to develop a strong proselytizing work aimed at swelling the ranks of the group, the organization, or the party, whose strengthening finally became a primordial objective and promoted a kind of “patriotism of the organization”. The second was to privilege the discursive side of political action, based on the idea that the important thing was to get out to people ideas and programs through the dissemination of texts and speeches carefully prepared to the smallest detail. These texts had the clear purpose of disseminating the ideological assumptions defended by their authors so that they could be adopted by as many people as possible, and who would make them their own. A kind of “patriotism of ideology”, if you will.
Both types of patriotism coincided in privileging the activity of propaganda as a form of political intervention, and that was precisely what the “anarchists” rejected. They did not want to “grow” as an organization, nor did they want their discourse to be “consumed”, and nor did they want to proclaim an identity. Of course, they also defended certain ideological and political principles, but these should not remain on the level of words; the ideology should be incarnated in concrete acts susceptible to proliferate other acts of a similar nature, that is, that conveyed similar ideological contents.
For them, it was about carrying out political actions whose meaning was inscribed in the actual action taken, and which would not depend on its source or authorship (initials, flags, etc.), nor on the supporting discourse that accompanied it. That is to say, its meaning was not to be tied to what was said about it, rather the action was to speak for itself. It was not necessary to sign it, it was not about bestowing prestige on an organization, nor about proclaiming an identity. It was about the action having effects that could range from the creation of a difficulty for the powers in place, to the exposing of hiden aspects of domination, through to the awakening of political awareness, and, above all, provoking spontaneous “replicas” of the action, not as an effect of mimesis, but by a process of “appropriation” and re-creation of the action by people.
Reinventing approaches similar to those of the “anarchists”, we have already seen that the “22M” placed special emphasis on the concept of “exemplary action”, signifying actions charged with political meaning, without it being necessary to specify that meaning because the power of conviction of the “exemplary action” was not in the discourse that surrounded it, but in what it awakened in those who saw it or heard about it. They also had to be endowed with pedagogical power, and be made available to those who wanted to reproduce them, so that they could spread and sprout as if through contagion. In a certain sense, this evoked quite directly (although ignoring its bloody forms), the old “propaganda by deed” that anarchists developed as instruments capable of awakening and moving consciousnesses, of unmasking domination, and of promoting the desire to struggle.
The concept of utopia never seemed to me appropriate to think any event whatsoever. Those who say that 68 was utopian want to say two things: on the one hand, it is a failure, since, by definition, what is not successful is utopian; but also that it was “nice”, “open”, that there was “reverie and generosity”. But utopia has historically been something else: the elaboration of an ideal society proposed, in the face of political action, as the real remedy for social ills. However, 68 showed that what matters in a movement is not the goal set but the creation of a subjective dynamic, which opens a space and a time where the configuration of possibilities is transformed. To put it another way: it is actions that create dreams, and not the other way around.
Yes, it is the left that has liquidated 68. In 1981, just elected, François Mitterrand declared that with his victory, the political majority had finally joined the sociological majority of the country. He thus endorsed a sociological definition of politics as a coincidence between the institutions of the state and the composition of society. But 68 was an important political moment because it created a distance with the political scene, state institutions, and social blocks. Politics is what interrupts the game of sociological identities. In the nineteenth century, the revolutionary workers whose texts I studied said: “We are not a class.” The bourgeoisie called them a dangerous class. But for them, the class struggle was the struggle to no longer be a class, the struggle to leave the class and the place assigned to them by the existing order, a struggle to assert themselves as the carriers of a universally shareable project. 68 reactivated this gap between the logic of emancipation and the logic of class.
But what gives meaning to politics is, in all cases, the refusal of necessity: this is what creates unforeseen futures. This is what the movement of 68 has shown, like the revolutions of the past.
Jacques Rancière, Liberation (24/05/2008)
May has not yet finished
The custom of paying attention and of conceding importance to an event because it is 50, or 100, years old, borders on the absurd, since obviously, that event was neither more nor less important when it celebrated, for example, 48 or 96 years. However, in the case of May 68, even that faint pretext is good reason to bring it up and reflect upon it, because unlike many other events whose interest is only historical, this one, in addition to being part of history, is also part of the present and continues to beat in the heart of our societies.
Indeed, it is of note that the event’s significance for those of us who were submerged by its turbulence was of such a magnitude that for many of us, May has ended up being part of what we are, what we feel and what we dream of, as Emma Cohen has said magnificently in a beautiful and endearing book of memories and experiences. “May has not yet finished”, and thus it continues to accompany us in the present.
Now, beyond its inscription in the individual sphere, it can also be considered that if May has not yet completely finished, that it is for the simple reason that it continues to exert influences on our societies. Indeed, some of the keys to understanding the meaning of the present are located precisely in the events of May, or, rather, in that extraordinary event that was May of 68. That is the reason why it is necessary to go into what May of 68 was, if we want to discern some of the characteristics of the present.
May is of the type of events that mark a before and an after, its irruption closes an era and opens another, and as it turns out, as the time it opened has not yet been closed, reflecting on May is not so much looking at the past as thinking the present.
I would not like to conclude without mentioning the fact that I am always surprised with talk of the final failure of May 68. I cannot understand it for the simple reason that it is not appropriate to judge an event in terms of success or failure. This kind of evaluation can only be applied to a project that is designed to achieve this or that result, or to an action undertaken with such and such a purpose. While it is true that May 68 responded to the interweaving of multiple causes, the realisation of a particular project however never figured among them. If one insists on wanting to speak in terms of success and failure, the success of “an event” is simply that of having happened, and its failure would be if it had not occurred. May 68 simply happened, and that is its unquestionable success, as well as its indecipherable mystery.
Liaison des Etudiants Anarchistes, anarchist student coordination that we founded in Paris at the end of 1963.
 The “22nd of March movement”, constituted on that very day in 1968, after the occupation of the administrative building of Nanterre by some 150 students, was one of the principle protagonists of May 68. I will say more about it further on.
 Emma Cohen. La libreta francesa. Mayo del 68. Castellò de la Plana: Publicaciones de la Universitat Jaume I, 2010
Tomás Ibáñez, Libre Pensamiento nº 93. 2018
A brief video record of events in the early days of May …
Mai68: La contestation | Archive INA
A statement of aims and forms of action from the Mouvement du 22 mars …
The Mouvement du 22 mars stems from test of strength that took place in Nanterre in response to police provocation: the arrest of comrades because of their militant action in favour of the NLF in Vietnam.
Having begun in action, the 22 mars is at present based on a certain number of principles:
- Revolutionary unity is achieved directly, in action and not around a political line or an ideology.
- The preliminary condition for any revolutionary action is the right of everyone to speak.
The masses only act when they themselves speak directly, without intermediaries or representatives. This carries with it
- absolute plurality of tendencies and their right to be voiced;
- revocability of those who are answerable and rejection of any monopoly of news and knowledge.
3. This right of the masses to speak and act implies that they now create their own organs of expression and action:
- action committees at the grass roots, autonomous with respect to any political or union organisation whatsoever.
4. Practical destruction of all types of partitioning prescribed by bourgeois society:
- abolition of cooperative-type divisions (student, worker, peasant, intellectual);
- abolition of the division of labour and of the partitioning between manual and intellectual work;
- destruction of all hierarchy and all privileges for leaders founded on pseudo position or pseudo knowledge.
5. Worker management in business and industry on the basis of worker power, which can only be the power of grass roots committees.
Until now the 22 mars methods for action have been essentially:
- active political contestation: poster campaigns, political meetings;
- blocking the functioning of bourgeois institutions by occupying premises, sabotaging examinations (that is to say, the means for selecting future cadres for the bourgeoisie: its cops);
- combatting repression by direct action in the streets: meetings, demos, barricades, etc.;
- organisation of the struggle: creation of revolutionary action committees, neighbourhood committees, etc.
On all levels the struggle is revolutionary only if it attacks bourgeois and capitalist government and tends toward its destruction: for example, workers management is inseparable from abolition of bourgeois government.
These methods for action have value only as examples. They can in no case be systematised: in fact, the Mouvement du 22 mars denies the existence of models for revolutionary action because it is the study of local conditions that allows us to find suitable forms of action.
(The French Student Uprising November 1967-June 1968: An Analytic Record, Alain Schnapp and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Beacon Press, Boston,1971)
To close: A brief chronology of the events which swept France in May and June 1968. Starting as a student revolt, the events culminated in mass workplace occupations and a general strike of 10 million workers. Followed by a short international chronology (from libcom.org).
It was a festival without beginning or end; I saw everyone and no-one, for each individual was lost in the same enormous strolling crowd; I spoke to everyone without remembering either my own words or those spoken by others, because everyone’s attention was absorbed at every step by new objects and events, and by unexpected news.
May 1968 has entered into legend – to the point where when new waves of struggle break out in France young people get irritated by the inevitable comparisons to 68 that are aired in the media. The 2006 anti-CPE movement is only the most recent example. Yet May 68 was the most advanced movement of an exceptional year of struggle that remains a high-point of the post-WWII era. Hopes and possibilities were raised high – yet the revolution never came, even though the idea of revolution (though often limited and confused) was a part of the general ferment and atmosphere in a way that seems extraordinary now, looking back from where we are. Our times are in many ways the era of counter-revolution that followed – the outcome of the defeat of the struggles of the 1960s and 70s, when ‘the social question’ dominated life to varying degrees.
Revolt flared in many places; across Europe, in France and Italy particularly – and in the East, the Prague Spring. In Mexico there was a massacre of demonstrators to ensure social peace prior to the Olympics of that year. Yet May 68 in Paris remains the iconic image associated with the year.
There was something in the air that year – the events that led up to May were all part of it. But if the student disruptions at Strasbourg in December 1966 and Nanterre in March 68 and their Situationist inspirers cannot claim to have been the spark that led to the huge upheaval of May, they can claim a contribution; and the Situationist International can claim that they foresaw more clearly than others that such a revolt was becoming possible. The SI can also claim to have written most of the best leaflets and texts during and after the events, as well as many of the grafittied slogans.
But no political group can claim 68 – it was notable that it was a mass spontaneous outburst, not instigated or led by any external power. (Though part of its weakness was that it allowed the unions and Communist Party to eventually limit and fragment the movement.) 10 million workers participated in the largest wildcat strike in history – yet most of them allowed the (often Stalinist) union bureaucrats to keep control; the occupations of workplaces were used by unions to keep the workers separated from the wider movement of students and other youth. Those who went to the factories to engage with workers were usually met with locked gates manned by union stewards. The Communist Party and unions were exposed, for all who didn’t already know, as the agents of counter-revolution and the party of order and business as usual.
Chronology of events in France
22 March 1968: student radicals and associates invaded an administration building at Nanterre University and held a meeting in the university council room dealing with class discrimination in French society and the political bureaucracy that controlled the school’s funding.
The school’s administration called the police, who surrounded the university. After the publication of their wishes, the students left the building without any trouble. Later, leaders of what came to be known as the “Movement of 22 March” were called together by the disciplinary committee of the university.
Thursday 2 May 1968: following months of conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris at Nanterre, the administration shut down that university. Students at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris met on 3 May to protest against the closure and the threatened expulsion of several students at Nanterre.
Sunday 5 May: Radicals occupied the administration building and held a general assembly. The police surrounded Nanterre, closing down the university.
Monday 6 May: Nanterre students came together in the centre of Paris and, after continual harassment and over 500 arrests, erupted into five hours of rioting with police. The national student union, and the union of university teachers called a march to protest against the police invasion of the Sorbonne. A complete ban on demonstrations and the closure of large sections of central Paris brought thousands of angry students onto the streets. In the face of increasing police brutality, more than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd dispersed, some began to create barricades out of whatever was at hand; “Literally thousands helped… women, workers, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron.” Others threw paving stones, forcing the police to retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and charged the crowd again. Hundreds more students were arrested. By the end of the night, 350 cops had been injured in the fighting.
The same day, high school student unions spoke in support of the riots. The next day, they joined the students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers who gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that: (1) all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, (2) the police leave the university, and (3) the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. Negotiations broke down after students returned to their campuses, after a false report that the government had agreed to reopen them, only to discover the police still occupying the schools.
Tuesday May 7th: a 50,000 strong march against police brutality turns into a day long battle through the narrow streets and alleys of Paris’ Latin Quarter. When the police fired tear gas, protestors answered with molotov cocktails. When they were told to disperse, the protestors answered with chants of “Long Live the Paris Commune!”
Friday May 10th: Another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. When the riot police again blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2:15 in the morning after negotiations once again floundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn of the following day. The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred and the aftermath was shown on television the following day. Allegations were made that the police had participated, through agents provocateurs, in the riots, by burning cars and throwing molotov cocktails.
After massive demonstrations, the Education Minister started negotiations. But in the streets, 60 barricades had been built and workers came down to support the students.
After the massive protests, the police were forced out of the Latin Quarter. Students seized the sections of Paris which police had sealed off and created an assembly to spread the struggle. Occupations and demonstrations soon spread throughout France. From Sorbonne University (previously cordoned off by police but taken back by the students) came leaflets, proclamations, telegrams and posters. Graffiti like “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!”, “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” and “All Power to the Imagination!” were painted on walls. One wall had the phrase “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop’s head!”
The Parti Communiste Français (PCF) reluctantly participated in, with the major union federations – the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO) – calling a one-day general strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May.
Monday, 13 May: well over a million people marched through Paris; the police stayed largely out of sight. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. The surge of strikes did not, however, recede. In fact, the protesters got even more enraged.
When the Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it an autonomous “people’s university”. Around 400 popular action committees were set up in Paris, including the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne, and elsewhere in the weeks that followed to take up grievances against the government and French society.
Tuesday 14 May: a sit-down strike begins at the Sud Aviation plant near the city of Nantes, where workers lock management in their offices. In the following days, other workers began occupying factories, then another strike at a Renault parts plant near Rouen, which spread to the Renault manufacturing complexes at Flins in the Seine Valley and the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Wednesday 15 May: that night, the National Theatre in Paris was seized and made into a permanent assembly for mass debate.
Thursday 16 May: by now workers had occupied roughly fifty factories.
Friday 17 May: 200,000 workers were now on strike.
Saturday 18 May: two million workers on strike.
Monday 20 May: during this week numbers escalated to ten million, or roughly two-thirds of the French workforce, on strike.
4,000 students occupying Sorbonne University went down to support the Renault strikers. 10,000 cops were called up for back up, union officials locked factory gates and the Communist Party urged their members to try and stop the revolt.
These strikes were not led by the union movement; on the contrary, the CGT tried to contain this spontaneous outbreak of militancy by channeling it into a struggle for higher wages and other economic demands. Workers put forward a broader, more political and more radical agenda, demanding the ousting of the government and President de Gaulle and attempting, in some cases, to run their factories. When the trade union leadership negotiated a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a 7% wage increase for other workers, and half normal pay for the time on strike with the major employers’ associations, the workers occupying their factories refused to return to work and jeered their union leaders, even though this deal was better than what they could have obtained only a month earlier.
May 24th; the Paris Stock Exchange is set on fire by protestors.
As street demos grew and occupations continued, the state prepared to use brutal force to crush the revolt. Army generals readied 20,000 troops to take hold of Paris with force and police had occupied communications centres like TV stations and Post Offices. Communist Party officials helped manipulate strikers into returning to work. In the case of the Metro, they visited one station and told workers that other stations had re-opened, then they proceeded to move around all the stations saying this.
Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26: the Grenelle agreements were signed at the Ministry of Social Affairs. They provided for an increase of the minimum wage by 25% and of the average salaries by 10%. These offers were rejected as inadequate by workers and the strike went on.
Wednesday 30 May: several hundred thousand protesters (400,000 to 500,000—much more than the 50,000 the police were expecting) marched through Paris.
Thursday 31 May: while the government appeared to be close to collapse, de Gaulle remained firm, though he had to go into hiding and considering abandoning his position. After being assured that he had sufficient loyal military units mobilized to back him if push came to shove, he went on the radio (the national television service was on strike) to announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on 23 June. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not.
Tuesday June 5: Most workers have gradually returned to work or were ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union called off street demonstrations. The government banned a number of leftist organizations.
6 June: the police retook the Sorbonne. De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held later in June, and the crisis came to an end.
The international situation
1968 and the whole era of the 1960s and 70s were characterised by worldwide struggles; of workers, of youth, of students. Against work and exploitation, against state, against class society, against authority, against racial, sexual and gender repression, against war, against the stifling morality and conformities of daily life.
Chronology of a few of the significant international events of 1968
March 8: the 1968 Polish political crisis began with students from the University of Warsaw who marched for student rights and were beaten with clubs. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus and were clubbed and arrested again. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest in violent confrontations with students and police in the streets. The government fought a propaganda campaign against the protestors, labeling them Zionists. The twenty days of protest ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than a thousand students. Most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government.
March 17: a demonstration against the Vietnam war outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London led to hours of street fighting between police and demonstrators; it ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested. There were worldwide protests against the US involvement in Vietnam, as well as widespread draft-dodging by US youth and insubordination in the US Army.
April 4: assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in ,USA. In response, a wave of riots spread through black areas in over 115 American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C, where rioting lasted for 4 days.
April 20th: Tory MP Enoch Powell makes his anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech; this sparks several demonstrations across England, including one by some London dockers in support of Powell.
April 23: a student occupation and closure of Columbia University.
May-June: a mass revolt and general strike across France. (See above.)
Last week of August: the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by the new Youth International Party (“Yippies”), the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe) and thousands of other youth protesters. Chicago’s Mayor Daly organised a massive police operation, backed by the National Guard and the army to deal with the protests, leading to clashes that dominated the streets for 8 days.
August 21: Russian troops invade Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring; instigated earlier in the year by Dubchek’s moderate reform policies gving greater press freedom, civil protests had developed.
2 October 1968: In Mexico, on that night a student demonstration ended in a storm of bullets in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, ten days before the celebration of the 1968 Summer Olympics in the same city. Police, paratroopers and paramilitary units fired on students, killing over a hundred people.This was to enforce a social peace to protect against against any disruption of the Olympics.