Non Fiction

The Revolution That Was Not: The French Student Revolt of 1968

The students that rebelled against the French University in May of 1968 caused a series of events that seemed to come full circle in a matter of only a few weeks. Within the first week student protests and calls for university reform had transformed into calls for nation-wide revolution, which led to strikes so widespread that by the end of May “[t]he economic life of the country was virtually at a standstill with 9 or 10 million people involved in the work stoppage (Caute, pg. 245).” The student occupation of the Sorbonne and eventually the entire Latin Quarter in Paris (after violent street-battles between police and students) became reminiscent of 19th century revolutions which were thought buried long in the past, movements in which intelligentsia and proletariat were steadfast in their solidarity. This unity grew in spite of the initial mistrust between workers and students. Radical student intellectuals such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit thought that the overthrow of the Fifth Republic and the regime of President Charles de Gaulle was just the beginning of a total transformation of French society. Many workers shared the radical, revolutionary sentiments of the students and participated in wildcat strikes, pressuring the trade unions to call official strikes in support of their workers. However, many of the unions were allied with the Communist party in France (PCF), which was conservative in its intentions, desiring to maintain the capitalist status quo in order to win upcoming elections, hence only making material demands for workers, such as shorter hours and increased wages.

Just how and why did protests by students against the rigid hierarchy of the French University evolve into a massive, nation-wide movement? Was it because the French University was a microcosm of French society as a whole, as suggested by David Caute in The Year of the Barricades? Or were the events of May only a case of “Psychodrama” as described by Raymond Aron in The Elusive Revolution? Could it have been a case in which the students were “…merely acting…” in a “…rehearsal held almost two centuries after the play had already been staged…(Aron, pg. XV)?”

The Elusive Revolution was a transcript published of a discussion which took place in July of 1968 between Alain Duhamel and Raymond Aron. It was an interview in which Aron set out to be an apologist for his own judgments (broadcast through independent French radio stations) of the student revolt and nationwide work stoppage a month earlier. Aron associated the participants in the student uprising of 1968 with actors imitating the historical revolutionary figures of France’s distant past, claiming that the contemporary event was really a “non-event”. He went so far as to quote Shakespeare in the preface to The Elusive Revolution, (‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’) corresponding the famous line to what he thought was France’s perception of what had happened in the month of May. Aron set out to claim that the naive students had consciously and deliberately taken on the parts of historical revolutionary figures such as Robespierre and Lenin, but as poor imitations of those characters. Then, after criticizing the students for becoming farcical representations of figures long dead, Aron went on to liken himself to Alexis de Tocqueville in his radio broadcasted responses of the events at the time. Like de Tocqueville, Aron was a vocal proponent of liberal democracy throughout the events of May. The former considered the idealistic aspirations of libertarian socialists, such as self-management, as unrealistic and “…incompatible with modern society…(Aron, pg. 6).” Excerpts such as this abound in The Elusive Revolution, as it was a self-admitted personal reaction wrought with Aron’s self-justifications and explanations of the opinions he made public throughout the events of May. This is in stark contrast to the framework of Caute’s book, The Year of the Barricades, in that Caute’s account attempted a more objective look at what happened in May of 1968 (albeit, with the advantage of historical hindsight from twenty years later).

Instead of writing a subjective analysis of the student uprising, David Caute tried to put the events of May within the context of the year of 1968, and within the even broader framework  of what France’s political and cultural environment was like in that time.  With The Year of the Barricades, Caute focused on recording the chain of events throughout May in a chronology crafted from the who, what, where, when, and when necessary an analysis of why, as opposed to Aron’s subjective, analytically critical approach. The so-called Psychodrama started when Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other student activists (called the March 22nd Movement by some) protested outside of the Sorbonne against the disciplinary action awaiting them. Caute summarily explained the reasoning of those students only after he had described the growth of the protests to include the National Union of Students (UNEF), and the lecturer’s union (SNESup), outside the Sorbonne throughout the weekend of May 3rd through May 5th. The wide array of students and teachers were united against the hierarchy of the French University, wanting greater political freedom for students and lecturers within the university. The protesters were especially opposed to increasingly rigorous selective admission standards as implemented by the Fouchet Plan.

“One thing that united the student generation was resentment against antiquated disciplinary rules. Political meetings and propaganda were normally forbidden on campus; men were not allowed into women’s lodgings; students were not permitted to decorate their rooms; in many halls of residence, students could receive guests only in the common rooms. It required only inspired leadership- the flair, humor, and courage of Cohn-Bendit- to link the petty frustrations with the wider grievance against technocratic authoritarianism (Caute, pg. 214).”

Although Cohn-Bendit rejected being labelled as a leader, preferring to claim that he was voicing the opinions of the majority of students. This was because the movement espoused a horizontal system of self-administration that some would deem the New Left, and others such as Aron would pejoratively call ultra-left. Indeed, those of the March 22nd Movement were difficult to discern for Gaullists and Communists alike, as some of the students compared themselves to Les Enrages, (those of the radical left during the French Revolution that opposed the Jacobins) which was perhaps the provocation which led Aron to label the students as poor imitators of revolutionary figures. Yet this labeling of the movement was made in order to establish that it was anti-authoritarian, and became something that Gaullists and liberals such as Aron focused on. This was instead of the new, contemporary aspects of the movement, such as its criticisms of consumerism as the 20th century opium of the people (in reference to Marx’s diagnosis of religion being the opium of the people in the 19th century). The students were not aspiring to be antiquated figures, they were fighting against a hierarchical system from antiquity and the authoritarianism it produced. If anything, the misguided students were the ones idolizing Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh, but those students were not significant until later, (in spite of the abundance of Mao, Lenin, and Trotsky posters) and thus were not the subject of Aron’s criticisms.

The students from Nanterre wanted reform and the forging of something entirely new, as inspired by the situationists, in which societal alienation and technocracy would be destroyed. Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual adversary of Raymond Aron, interviewed Daniel Cohn-Bendit in late May, in a attempt to find out more about the goals of the new movement. “What many people cannot understand is the fact that you have not tried to work out a program or to give your movement a structure…[and they] attack you for trying to ‘smash everything’ without knowing…what you would like to put in place of what you demolish.” Cohn Bendit’s answer was that the “…movement’s strength is precisely that it is based on an ‘uncontrollable’ spontaneity, that it gives an impetus without trying to canalize it or use the action it had unleashed to its own profit (Perry, pg. 358).” Cohn-Bendit’s explanation impressed Sartre, in that it affirmed that the movement was attempting to implement imagination into reality in a way that had not been carried out since the Paris Communes of 1871. Yet the movement of 1968 was revolutionary for revolutions (or would-be revolutions) because it constituted a paradigm shift towards grassroots activism in which the unions, (for both students and workers) were forced to follow the massive illegal wildcat strikes in order to remain relevant to their constituents.

Caute remarked time and again on the exceptional nature of the widespread advent of a virtual general strike that neither the unions nor the Communists had called for, and the solidarity seen between participants in both the working class and the students, (many of whom came from bourgeois families). The professors that had joined the students made their own observations as to why the movement had become so widespread; Claude Lefort was one such lecturer and philosopher that had taught at the Sorbonne, and Caute found that Lefort’s observations were correct in that “…what triggered the workers’ revolt was not economic grievances, but the sudden realization that traditional power structures could, with boldness, be challenged (Caute, 249).” However, Caute then came to a conclusion similar to Aron’s, but in a more subtle fashion that was not disdainful of the students or of May’s events, stating that the demands for self-management were vague while still maintaining that dismembering the hierarchical system was justified. “The March 22 Movement issued its own tentative formula for ‘self-management in the enterprise,’ but the phrases were vague or vaporous: ‘…power of the worker at the level of his work (opposition to technocracy)… break hierarchical clustering into cadres, and separations of technical, economic and financial functions.’ That was all very well (if one understood the jargon), but could you eat it or drink it (Caute, pg. 249)?” Contrary to the students’ desires for intangible revolutionary goals, (such as the destruction and subsequent restructuring of capitalist society) the PCF and many workers desired material demands, or as Caute put it, something tangible, something with which the people could eat or drink.

However, Cohn-Bendit’s views were important in that he conveyed a different outlook. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized this when he interviewed Cohn-Bendit, and Sartre posed significant questions to him regarding the choice between adjustments or revolution. The radical student claimed that with support of the Communist party and unions General de Gualle’s regime could be overthrown “within a fortnight”, but that alone would not solve the issue. Yet the PCF and trade unions did not support the March 22nd Movement until after more than a week of police brutalizing students and protesters, (which Caute described in great detail and Aron only mentioned in passing) and even then the PCF was quick to give in to negotiations with the de Gaulle administration, winning some reforms in hopes of winning at the polls, which was ultimately unsuccessful. As Sartre put it, because of the events of May, “…the university will be readjusted, but only within the framework of a bourgeois society.” Cohn-Bendit’s strategy was to accept the realities of the situation, to implement revolution in the long term through reform, and not claim that the two were mutually exclusive. “I am not interested in metaphysics, in looking for ways to ‘make the revolution.’ As I have said, I think that we are moving toward a perpetual change of society, produced by revolutionary actions at each stage (Perry, pg. 358).”

Although Raymond Aron was highly critical of those whom were participants in the events of May and their wide range of often contradictory aspirations, he agreed that there should be changes to the authoritarian nature of France’s educational system, but no fundamental changes to the framework of French society in itself. Aron admitted that even though he was disturbed by the massive amount of involvement in the events of May, (or what he called a pseudo-revolution) the movement represented “…a longing, which a great many French people share, to be treated as human beings and not as objects like raw materials or the cogs in a machine. People aspire to dignity, to the status of a subject. Who would oppose these aspirations? The question is, how can they be satisfied? …the only conceivable way involves a transformation in personal relationships (Aron, pg. 112).” And so Aron blamed the issues with the new generation of students on the students and their upbringing: yes, their education was authoritarian, but their bourgeois parents were also too lenient. Caute however, recognized the faults in France’s system, then told the story of what had happened in May of 1968, and criticized the students without being disdainful.

More importantly, Caute’s The Year of the Barricades put the events of May into a historical and an as-objective-as-possible perspective. While Aron’s The Elusive Revolution could only be read in a philosophical and highly political context in which it would be necessary to have been in France at the time with a similarly indignant attitude toward what was happening. Aron’s opinions were understandable in that he had lived through the Second World War and wanted France to “…get away from chaos, from anarchy, from violence (Aron, pg. 183).” However, his contemptuousness toward the students, workers, and various other protestors in The Elusive Revolution was unattractive in comparison to Caute’s historical narrative and reasonably critical analysis. The Elusive Revolution was a product of its time, an emotional reaction to an emotional upheaval which had only happened a month prior, and could only be understood within the context of what was happening in France midway through the twentieth century. Caute’s The Year of the Barricades explained the events of May as a distinct movement just as he had described Cohn-Bendit as a leader that denied being a leader. And with a historical analysis, instead of a contemporary political critique, David Caute offered an enlightening account of an event which has defied definitions to the point of having the ambiguous label: the events of May, or even more ambiguously- May of 68. The revolution that was not a revolution was indeed revolutionary because of its examples of grassroots activism, rejection of modern consumerism, advocation of direct democracy, and most memorably the humorous and subversive street art and slogans. Which is why what had happened in Paris that month was so significant, in that it represented the effects of society’s post-industrial transition on a generation of youth, and that it was an event that had come full circle in only a few weeks, but had such enduring consequences that it would foreshadow the European economic and societal crises of the 21st century.

"Be young and shut up", an example of the more general and ambiguous anti-establishment art seen in Paris throughout May of 68.
“Be young and shut up”, an example of the more general and ambiguous anti-establishment posters that could be seen on the streets of Paris throughout May of 68.

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