Thinking through May 68 (to the May of 15M): Tomás Ibáñez

Our series of posts, on this, the 50th anniversary of the french May 68, began with a recent essay on the events, by Tomáz Ibáñez.  And we close with an older reflection (a prologue to a larger essay on May 68), in which Ibáñez not only comments on the events, but explores their resonances in spain’s 15th of May movement of 2011.

If this brings our series to an end, it does not of course mean that May 68 is finished and to be forgotten until the next anniversary.  To speak with Ibáñez, May 68 continues to echo in our present, and for those who listen, it still feeds the desire for revolution.

Prologue to Mayo del 68: la revolución de la revolución, by Jacques Baynac

However intense our desire may be for May 68 to happen again some day, there is little good to be had in feeding the nostalgia for what will never be again. The irreducible singularity of that event has anchored it firmly in history, making it an absolutely unrepeatable episode. But, careful, affirming that May of 68 cannot happen again does not imply, far from it, that it has stopped beating strongly in our present, nor that its effects have been extinguished with the passage of time.

Definitively unrepeatable, May 68 nevertheless reinvents itself in every gesture of collective rebellion, from the Lacandon Jungle to Taksim Square, passing through to Notre -Dame-des-Landes, or through to the crowded squares of 15M, among many other places. But, let us also be careful in this case, because in saying that May 68 reinvents itself at times does not mean that it does not present notable differences with its various reinventions.

It is of these limits that I would like to address here, as a personal and fraternal tribute to the great book that Jacques Baynac offers us. Undoubtedly, one of the best that has ever been written about the events.

May 68 is part of those rare historical occurrences that are endowed with enough magic to spur the imagination, ignite desires and make us dream.

An absolutely unexpected event, May not only caused an enormous surprise in the whole world, it also stunned its own protagonists. Nobody had imagined that something similar could happen in that period that was relatively prosperous, and in that country that was so peaceful that it could even be boring.

Moreover, what was happening then was unimaginable and disconcerting to ourselves at the end of each day of struggle, and in the mystery that surrounded every dawn of an ongoing battle.(1)

The magic of May transformed us to the point that we were never the same again and its imprint was such that for many of the people who lived it, May never ended completely, as is reflected in the splendid book La libreta francesa. May 68, written by the then twenty-year-old Emma Cohen,(2) who decided to escape from the family environment, to throw herself completely into the turbulence of May.

For those of us who lived it intensely, it is impossible to speak of May from any other affective register other than that of passion. It is this passion that emerges in each line of the story that Jacques Baynac offers us, a story that narrates, from within and with great precision, what happened during the events,(3) recovering with unquestionable success both the extraordinary environment that made the uniqueness of May, as well as the novel political contents that moved it.

In what follows, I will try to contain my own passion, I will refrain from repeating the chronological account magnificently elaborated by Jacques Baynac, limiting myself to develop two aspects. On the one hand, I will try to complement, in my own way, some of the keys offered in the book to get closer to what May 68 was and, on the other hand, I will try to link the experience of May with the present moment.

It has been written that 1968 was “the year that shook the world” and, in effect, May 68 was fully part of of an extremely exuberant international context. In the first months of the year there were the spectacular and violent demonstrations of the Zengakuren in Japan,(4) occupations of university buildings at Columbia University, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, particularly intense in Berkeley, which culminated in August with the multitudinous and tumultuous siege, led by Jerry Rubin, of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the beginning of March, the “Battle of Valle Giulia” in Rome left 400 wounded, while on the 17th of that same month, 30,000 young people staged a pitched battle in front of the US Embassy in London, and on March 22, an explosive cocktail of anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and Situationists occupied the administrative building of the University of Nanterre.

A short time later, on April 4, the murder of Martin Luther King took place, and on the 11th, Rudi Dutschke was seriously wounded by a bullet in Berlin, which sparked demonstrations throughout Europe. It would also be appropriate to add to all of the above, the radicalization, in the United States, of the movements for racial equality with the Black Panthers and Black Power, the echoes (finally deceptive) of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the demands for freedom that came from Prague or from Warsaw, the seduction exercised by the Latin American guerrillas, the multitudinous success of the anti-nuclear marches organized during Easter and a long etcetera.

Nestled in that turbulent context, the powerful deflagration that May of 1968 represented exceeded, by far, the echo of the remaining events of the year, introducing, in addition, an important difference. In effect, the mobilizations that shook the world during that particularly convulsive year were articulated around specific and precise demands. However, although the protest that spread throughout France also alluded to specific demands, there were demands of a much more general nature that nested in its deepest motivations. As Jacques Baynac says, what beat in the dynamic energies of May was a thirst for freedom on all planes and, beyond this or that particular aspect, what May directly questioned was the kind of gray and empty life that the system offered; a life that was not life, but simple and deadly routine.(5) Certainly, May did not conquer power, but it succeeded in politicising spaces, places, people, institutions, processes … as well as words themselves and daily tasks, showing that passivity and isolation can be broken.

Its radical non-conformism, its striking transgressive and creative side, meant that, far from being exhausted in a mere protest, May 68 opened up avenues for innovation and change in multiple spheres, while declaring a number of inherited schemes to be obsolete. It was thus, for example, that from the heart beats of May flowed libertarian expressions everywhere, tearing them out of the meager ghetto where they dwelt, and projecting them suddenly over the crowds so that people would appropriate them and reinvent them in their own way. Perhaps that was why the question of the seizure of power was never raised as a major demand.

May 68 is sometimes considered, and not without some reason, as an eminently student revolt. However, regardless of the undoubted protagonism of the student sectors, it was actually the factory occupations that injected into May the energies that allowed it to survive beyond the first night of the barricades, and it was the millions of workers on strike who enhanced the resonance, both in intensity and duration, that May had in the depths of its antagonistic sensitivity. It was what happened in the world of work that conferred on May its dimension of an authentic historical event, a dimension that it would hardly have reached, if it had remained a simple affair of students.

From the privileged place offered by his active participation in the Comités d’action travailleurs-étudiants (CATE), whose general assembly and whose coordinating commission, permanently open to all, met at the university campus of Censier, Jacques Baynac recounts first-hand the process, not of simple alliance, but of authentic fusion, that occurred between certain student sectors and certain sectors of workers, both sectors being strongly committed to the rejection of any form of vanguardism, verticalism and bureaucratisation.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the trade union centrals to raise an impassable wall between the students and the workers, there is no doubt that in the minds of the young workers who undertook the most decisive actions there also beat, in a more or less confused way, and above the particular labor demands, the same thirst for freedom and the same global dissatisfaction with life imposed by the system, which animated the May movement as a whole. It was these motivations that prompted them to carry out the first occupations of factories, the kidnappings of managers, and those that encouraged their determined presence at the barricades or in the clashes with the police.

Echoing the accusations of adventurism that were then launched against those young workers and against the students most committed to the struggles of May, strong criticisms were also expressed afterwards of the prevailing improvisation, of the spontaneity of the actions, of the absence of precise navigation maps and detailed road-maps. Along that line it was argued (and some are still arguing it today) that if the movement had had a clear project, with pre-established goals and with solid organizational structures, it could have channeled the energies in a direction that would have allowed it to defeat the enemy .

However, what this way of putting things is not capable of understanding is that it was precisely because it lacked all those elements that the movement was able to move forward to where it could go, which was not little, instead of stalling in its first steps. The movement was able to progress until finally reaching its limits because it was building its project on the go: a project that did not preexist at the beginning of the mobilisation, but which was built, rectified and formed from within the making of daily life. It was this to do while doing that gave life to the movement and allowed it to go around the obstacles creatively, one after the other, that continued to emerge on its path.

In fact, May brought to a close a certain way of understanding revolution and this connects with some of the ideas expressed by the Invisible Committee in its latest book;(6) ideas that we can reformulate in the following way: the revolutionary subject does not preexist the revolution, it is constituted in the bosom of the revolutionary process, it results from that process, because it is the revolution that creates it as it itself unfolds.

In this sense, it was the May events themselves, the practices that were developed there, the formulas that were conceived and expressed in their very development, which gave shape to a multitudinous and diverse collective that did not exist anywhere before the events that continued to build and coin its identity. What happened on May 3 was paradigmatic in this regard.

Indeed, the 3rd of May can be considered as the real start of May 68 because it was the moment when the confrontation leapt out of the university campuses to spread through the streets of Paris and began to acquire, from that moment, some of the characteristics that would go on to define it. On that day, the leaders, the main militants and the assault forces of the student organizations, were confined to the courtyard of the Sorbonne, surrounded by an impressive police deployment. It has been said that it was precisely this circumstance that allowed the revolt to take hold with such force in the streets of the Latin Quarter.

The few militants who had managed to leave the Sorbonne worked to calm things down, to try to take control of the situation and to work to prevent the disastrous consequences of provoking the police. However, they lacked the strength to impose themselves: people reacted from their sensitivity, without slogans, guidelines, or any frame … And it happened that, unintentionally, the people were brought together.

The reaction of the people who were circulating that afternoon in the Latin Quarter introduced at the heart of the struggle, from the beginning, something that could not be equated with a mere demand, because it was expressed in terms of an ethical exigency: active solidarity with the detainees. It also placed direct action at the heart of the struggle, without mediations, and self-organization and, above all, it did not ask the institutions to give into a certain demand, but rather the multitudinous cry of “liberate our comrades” was more a war cry than a demand. They acted against the police vans to free the comrades, not to ask for their release. Finally, there was also a characteristic that would mark the whole process of May: the iron determination of some people who were determined to put their body, their whole body, into the fight. The more than 500 detainees of that incredible afternoon-night of May 3, or the more than 800 wounded of the 6th, testify to it amply, a few days before the famous night of the barricades broke out and without waiting for the Dantesque night of the 24th of May, when Paris lived scenes of authentic insurrection.

It is still striking that, despite the extreme violence of the clashes, there were only very few fatalities. The luck was, without a doubt, on the side of the contenders. However, it must be pointed out that when little by little normality was restored, many people could not bear the prospect of renouncing the promises of May. They could not resign themselves to continue living as before and took their lives, one way or another, in the weeks, in the months, or in the immediate subsequent years. This allows us to intuit the kind of passion that engendered May of 68, the intensity of the experiences that it elicited, the enthusiasm it managed to awaken and the strength with which it changed, in a matter of very few days, life stories that seemed written in advance and defined once and for all, with work, consumption and parenting as the only horizon of their desires.

Perhaps it is this same intensity of experiences that is responsible for always producing some surprise in us, when someone talks about the final failure of May 68. In fact, it does not seem appropriate to judge an event in terms of success or failure. These valuations can only be applied, properly, to a project that is designed to achieve this or that result, or to an action undertaken with such or such a purpose. May 68 of course did not fall from the sky, it responded to certain causes, but the realisation of a project did not appear among them. May was, literally, an event, that is, a creation in the strict sense of the word, something that was not pre-contained in anything, at any moment, prior to its appearance. The success of an event is, simply, that of having happened, and its failure would be that of not having occurred. May of 68 simply happened and that is its unquestionable success, at the same time as its indecipherable mystery, where the role of chance and of the concatenation of coincidences was fundamental.

Taking an interest today in May 68 is not reducible to remembering what happened almost 50 years ago, it does not consist of slipping through the discursive register of memory and recollection, but rather in the effort to try to better understand our here and now. The reason why reflecting on May 68 is not so much to contemplate the past, as to think the present, is very simple: certain events happen, burst forth with greater or lesser force in a certain historical situation and, then, they fade and disappear, leaving their memory as the only legacy.

However, other events mark a before and an after. When that happens, the event exceeds its memory, overflows and prolongs what occurs in time. May of 68 is an event of that type: it closes an era and opens another, and, as the time that it opened has not yet been closed, that event continues to affect our time to a greater or lesser extent.

In as much as what is currently happening in Spanish territory maintains a close relationship with what happened from May 15, 2011 on, I can not resist the temptation to take up here, literally, some fragments of what I published in the magazine Archipelago in 2008.(7) That is, three years before the squares were occupied:

“… May taught us … that the social energies necessary to raise powerful popular movements, and to bring out antagonistic practices of a certain intensity, arise from within the creation of certain situations; they do not necessarily pre-exist those situations. It is not that these energies are in a dormant state, and that they are liberated when the created situations permit, it is rather that those energies are engendered, are constituted, when those situations are created.

It is, therefore, energies that can appear “always”, at any time, although in the instant immediately before, they do not exist anywhere.

We learned that, often, these social energies are formed when “the instituted” is overtaken, when a space is subtracted from the apparatuses of power, and this space of power is emptied; when a “vacuum of power” is definitively achieved. The creation of this type of situation causes social energies to sustain themselves: they lose strength and, suddenly, they grow again, as occurs with storms.

For example, subverting habitual operations and established uses, occupying spaces, transforming places of passage into places of encounter and speech, all this unleashes a collective creativity that immediately invents new ways of extending that subversion and making it proliferate.

… May reminded us again, but with special intensity, that liberated spaces generate new social relationships, that they create new social bonds and that, compared to the previously existing ties, these reveal themselves to be incomparably more satisfying. People then experience the feeling that they live a different life, where they enjoy what they do, discover new attractions, and embark on a deep personal transformation in a very short time, as if an extraordinarily powerful catalytic process intervened.

People become aware and are politicised in a matter of days, and not superficially but deeply, with a speed that is truly incredible.

… May showed us that it is the concrete achievements, here and now, that are able to motivate people, to encourage them to go further and to make them see that other ways of living are possible. But it also warned us that in order for these realisations to happen, people need, imperatively, to feel that they are protagonists, that they are able to decide for themselves, and it is when they are truly protagonists and when they feel effectively as such, that their degree of involvement and commitment can explode beyond all limits.”

Was not this perhaps what in effect took place in the squares in May 2011, as it had already occurred in May 68? When we turn our attention to the movement that began to take shape in May 2011, it is easy to recognize in it several of the characteristics that I mentioned in that article. However, if a family resemblance between May 68 and May 2011 was noticeable as the 15M Movement was being built, the same cannot be said when considering the further evolution of a substantial part of 15M and what is happening today in the Spanish political landscape.

I will return immediately to this, but first I want to mention some of the differences that can be seen between May 68 and May of 15M, beyond the aforementioned family resemblance that unites them, keeping in mind all differences of proportion.

For example, the question of violence received in each circumstance a rather disparate treatment. It is true that, both in 1968 and 2011, the institutions and the media magnified the destruction and acts of street violence, attributing all responsibility to the demonstrators. However, on the part of the actors in both one and the other May, the attitude toward violence was quite different. Nobody, in either case, justified it or proclaimed it, but in May of 1968 its use was not systematically criminalized, but rather, in the face of the violence of the repressive bodies and institutions, the violence of the corresponding response enjoyed a certain legitimacy and was effectively exercised. Not only was the confrontation avoided but, on certain occasions, as, for example, on the night of the barricades, violent resistance was deliberately and conscientiously prepared in the face of more than foreseeable police intervention. Nothing similar happened in the squares of 15M. The exception was, perhaps, the blockade of the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona, with consequences that are still felt.

Another difference has to do with the proliferation of the centres of activism and the extension of the occupations. It is true that 15M ended up emigrating to the neighborhoods. However, that happened in Paris the day after the first clashes. That is to say, on May 4, an appeal was launched to create the Action Committees in all neighborhoods and in work places in order to spread and multiply the sources of agitation. Likewise, the movement of occupations was taking over new buildings where groups were installed, willing to develop new autonomous initiatives.

A third difference has to do with the extension to the world of work. It is true that many workers attended the 15M squares, but this inclusion of workers in the Movement did not imply the incorporation of the Movement into centres of work, as it did in May of 1968, even if finally to an insufficient degree.

Now, four years after the beginning of 15M, the differences with May of 1968 have been considerably broadened if we take as a point of reference the organization of Podemos and the various alliances that have been constituted to carry the social movements forward towards the conquest of political institutions .

May 68 never took seriously the seizure of power. Its inclination was rather to dissolve power or to short circuit it. May wanted to change life and for that, one had to exit from capitalism, which supposed the belief in the exultant possibility of revolution. Today, the utopian component of the 15th of May has given way to a strong realism (political pragmatism?) and the aspiration is to regenerate both politics and democracy and humanize capitalism, which means to conquer political power, taking institutions or, at least, getting a presence in their midst that will allow them to guide their course. The institutional commitment has replaced the conviction that one must desert from institutions.

Stated abruptly: May 68 tried to abolish what existed and work towards its radical mutation. Today it is about regenerating what exists.

The attitude toward elections is paradigmatic. When General de Gaulle called the elections, the answer was to denounce them as a trap for fools. (8) However, today, everything is focused on winning the elections.

It is worth remembering that May was also important for everything that it declared obsolete, for the roads that it closed off, for the practices of struggle, for the organizational models and for the political conceptions that it disqualified. Before these issues, who does not see that Podemos means a regression to concepts prior to the explosion of May 68, putting at your service, yes, the most advanced technologies. The planning, between a few thinking heads, of a strategy to advance towards political hegemony, the construction of a powerful electoral war machine, and the adherence to a leading charismatic leadership: these are some of the elements where the traces of avant-guardism and rancid Leninism appear in that new-born organization. Unless it is a case of surprising naivety, the desire to build truly effective instruments for the conquest of institutional political power cannot ignore that this is to accept entering upon the path of inevitable concessions, pacts and endless renouncements, that can only serve to strengthen the status quo, refreshing it. There is no doubt that part of the inheritance of 15M is today at the antipodes of what May 1968 was, and it is enough to read Jacques Baynac’s book to be fully convinced of it.

Contrary to what I had announced, it seems quite clear that I have not managed to completely contain my passion at the time of writing this prologue. I’m sorry, but it’s as if an insatiable desire for May continued to blow persistently in the wind …

Tomás Ibañez

Barcelona, June 2015

References (I have left all references to monographs and essays as they appear in the original)

  1. Ce n’est qu’un début, le combat continue (“This is nothing but the beginning, the struggle continues”), was one of the slogans most chanted during the demonstrations of May, even when the struggle was coming to an end.
  2. Emma Cohen. La libreta francesa. Mayo del 68. Castellò de la Plana: Publicaciones de la Universitat Jaume I, 2010.
  3. Les événements” was the expression used by everyone to refer to what was taking place in France.
  4. The Japanese Federation of Student Associations
  5. Metro, boulot, dodo” (“the tube/subway, job, sleep”) was the slogan used to characterise the routine of this life that is no life.
  6. Comité Invisible. A nuestros amigos. Logroño: Pepitas de Calabaza, 2015.
  7. Tomás Ibáñez. “Más allá del recuerdo, pero muy lejos del olvido”. Archipiélago, nº 80-81, 2008, 131-136.
  8. Elections piège à cons
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