May 1968 @50

On April 27, 2018, a hundred people showed up at Columbia University to talk about the French student and worker revolts of May–June 1968. Many such conferences are taking place around the world to ...

On April 27, 2018, a hundred people showed up at Columbia University to talk about the French student and worker revolts of May–June 1968. Many such conferences are taking place around the world to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that eventful and turbulent year. What made this meeting distinctive was that throughout the afternoon heady conversation about past protests was punctuated by the sounds of a graduate student demonstration taking place outside.

As elsewhere, graduate students at Columbia have been demanding that the university recognize and negotiate with their union. They had declared a week-long strike. Conference participants attended their noontime rally, and a union representative spoke at the symposium. Echoing through the windows, propped open to let in the air of a belated spring, the chants of the marching students had a sublime effect—in the very literal sense of coming “up to the threshold.” Indoors felt cool and somewhat dark while the spring bloomed outside.

Fifty years ago, France was convulsed by massive protests during what became known as le joli mai—the lovely May. The student and worker revolts of May–June 1968—the events (les événements), as they were known—were distinctive, dramatic, and influential. Students had been mobilizing for months over the right of men and women to visit each other’s dorms, the repression of free speech and the presence of undercover police on campuses, and the Vietnam War. Things exploded in early May when student leaders were called before a disciplinary committee at the Sorbonne. The university rector, concerned by preceding unrest at the suburban campus of Nanterre, preemptively called in the police out of fear that a disruptive demonstration would break out. He was not wrong.

Surprisingly and spontaneously, as paddy wagons tried to pull away with arrested students, a crowd blocked their path. The police responded heavy-handedly and a riot broke out. Paving stones were dug up and thrown and piled into barricades. The occupation of the Latin Quarter student district began: a festive, anti-authoritarian happening that lasted until late June. The student commune promoted endless encounters, talk, and dreams. Many people later recalled how the experience of freedom and solidarity together had been life-changing.

The revolts that started in Paris quickly spread to universities throughout France. Workers joined in as well. In previous years, defying labor union leadership, a series of wildcat strikes had already broken out. Now the spirit of direct democracy and the strategy of occupation affected all sectors of the economy, and upwards of nine million people went on strike. When national unions negotiated with the government for short-term benefits many employees rejected the proposals. Bolder aspirations for worker self-management went further than reform. The government’s inconsistent responses, alternately severe and lax, fed the momentum of the events.

By the end of May, the labor crisis had become a real political crisis, and the 10-year-old Fifth French Republic seemed to teeter on the verge of collapse. President Charles de Gaulle mysteriously left the capital for a military base to confer with a trusted general. Upon his return, he seized the initiative by appealing to a silent majority who had grown increasingly frustrated with the disruptive inconveniences of the strikes. Blaming the unrest on foreign and communist elements and calling new parliamentary elections, his radio address to the nation inspired crowds of Gaullist supporters to jam the Champs-Élysées waving tricolor French flags.

Nostalgia haunts discussions of ’68: the sense that the scale and magnitude of that era’s events make everything else come up short.

De Gaulle’s success in the June 1968 elections proved that the revolts would not immediately lead to a new government or constitution. Still, sensitized to the need for change by the May ’68 social movements, state ministries, labor unions, and the National Assembly did undertake real reforms, especially with respect to education and work. Seeming increasingly tired and out of touch, de Gaulle left office less than a year later. The events of May–June 1968 also opened a period of sustained agitation that continued at least into the mid-1970s. As one of the famous posters in the Latin Quarter had said at the time: it was the “beginning of a long struggle.”

The French events 50 years ago were among the most striking and iconic uprisings of an action-packed year. From the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and a landmark antiwar meeting that assembled international student activists in Berlin in February, to the massacre of students at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, and the start of the Irish Troubles that October, upheaval and contestation shook the entire world in 1968. The simultaneous convergence of multiple happenings during those 12 months made activists and governments everywhere think that a global revolution was breaking out. The year 1968 symbolizes an entire era—the global Sixties—that began in the mid-1950s and may have ended in the late 1970s.

May have ended? The question is worth asking. What are the connections between that era and our own? Five decades is a long time. While some people have clear memories of the Sixties and others have grown up in the shadow of 1968, several generations now know very little about the 1960s and 1970s. Enough time has passed that it may be newly possible to regard the era with fresh eyes and to distinguish the remarkable and inspiring from that which belongs to the past.

Just as it has become increasingly trying to listen to Baby Boomer nostalgia, the judgment that “the Sixties failed,” a common refrain for decades, has become more and more obscure. History does not work in terms of simple success or failure, neither the history we study nor the history we experience. Insofar as we still live with their promises and consequences, we are not done with the Sixties. On the 50th anniversary of 1968, analogy—similarity within difference—is in the air.

The Sixties had many dimensions, from unrepeatable circumstances to influential political and social movements. The era gave birth to living traditions that continue to pursue freedom, equality, solidarity, and peace on a world scale—from the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter; from Latin American mass organizations (organizaciones de masas) to a panoply of anti-violence, land reform, and social justice campaigns; from the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in the 1950s to present-day protests against that country’s remilitarization.

Daily life in many parts of the world looks very different than before the Sixties, and positive changes with respect to gender, sexuality, race, education, and environmental consciousness have undeniably taken place. A 1990s slogan exemplifies the persistence over time of the spirit of ’68: “Another world is possible.” The sentiment unites the Sixties with conference attendees and marching graduate students in 2018. While certainly distinctive, the political and social movements of ’68 also merge into a longer history that preceded them and includes the present. This is what a living tradition means.


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Yet nostalgia also haunts discussions of ’68: the sense that the scale and magnitude of that era’s events make everything else come up short. Call this the Sixties as an impossibly high bar. Some members of the ’68 generation continue to reinforce this impression when they talk about their blissful youth. While distance now helps us more clearly discern that generation’s excesses and delusions, there is no getting around the fact that the movements of that time were indeed exceptional. It was the first generation since 1848 to turn in very large numbers to the political left. Under the shadow of such a gold standard, subsequent social and political movements invariably seem lackluster, minor, ephemeral, and destined to fail. This judgment has helped foster cynicism for decades.

The truth, however, is that emancipatory political movements have not paused for a night’s sleep in 50 years: from anti-Apartheid and anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s through alter-globalization in the 1990s and 2000s to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other strivings in our own day. In the spring of 2018, British university employees struck to keep their pensions, American students marched against gun violence while their teachers demonstrated for better pay, and French youth occupied their universities to protest more selective admissions policies.

History shows that, typically, only small numbers of people speak for that other possible world. In 1950s America, just a handful of bodies stood on sidewalks saying No to the Bomb; in 1968 Moscow, eight individuals staged a sit-in against the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. On it goes: the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires; the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square; the Zone à défendre (Zone to Defend) movement against an airport development in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France. An unbroken chain of global aspirations and local expressions unites us with the Sixties.

It may be that the logic of large numbers itself demands accounting in terms of success or failure. The millions of people around the world who protested the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to stop the war. Yet people got off the couch. They showed up, bearing witness and proving values and commitment with their feet. Success should be measured as much by the means employed as by the ends attained. After all, we will never be able to stop pursuing freedom, equality, and solidarity, because the ultimate fulfillment of those ideals remains always beyond reach. Final tallies of results involve quantitative accounting. In contrast, the ways that imagination and hope can move bodies, that showing up already creates another possible world—these are qualitative experiences.

Needless to say, the risks and consequences of social action vary according to time and place. The eight Russians who protested Soviet intervention in August 1968 were immediately beaten and hauled away by the KGB, whereas, for instance, the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, felt like a five-mile-long block party, which did not make it less meaningful or valuable. So, the size of the crowd and success or failure are ultimately not the point. Lived history involves being with others, striving for the emancipation of others, in an unbroken chain of shared memory. And on it goes.

True, history involves strong forces and weak, brutality and humanization. It is of course also true—does it require yet another restatement?—that things seem pretty bad today: terrorism and militarism, the Crash and economic stratification, populism and racism, rabid nationalisms, the mainstreaming of lies and calumny, the menace of great power tensions, and so forth. All the more reason, then, to draw on the reservoirs of historical possibility by remembering together—co-mmemorating—in order to locate ourselves within a story of living traditions that imagine and create, in ways small and large, that other possible world.

We live in a different era, but some things seem the same. Many of the causes and battle lines that shaped the ’68 era seem just as pressing and sharp today: race, gender, violence, nationalism, and economic disparity within all countries and between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The forces of simultaneity and multiplicity that characterized the eventful year of 1968 have since intensified around the globe, and tensions between the global and the local, which during the Sixties shaped worldwide imagined communities—these tensions have subsequently hardened. We live in an eternal now of infinite instants (excuse me while I check my e-mail, again). The ’68 generation had a particular advantage over the present: the salience of confident philosophies of history, that ability to assert where “we” are—in time and space—and where we are going. Then, blends of anti-colonialism, Marxism, anarchism, and pacifism achieved widespread assent. They fueled “the Movement.” Today we tend to lack a view that history has a common meaning and direction.

In some ways, we are rightly suspicious of how past visions of History excluded and trampled, how they were tendentious and imperious. Yet such suspicions have themselves become a paralyzing orthodoxy. For all their faults and simplifications, philosophies of history enable people to see themselves as actors shaping history. They are narratives that motivate.

It is easy to identify visions of history today that are noxious, that reinforce existing divisions in lieu of imagining other possible worlds: immigrants are taking our jobs, the government taxes me too much, terrorists are trying to kill us. Such visions of history get decisive traction, but in a very real and literal sense they do not do justice to reality. The world is multiple, states have a role to play in creating level playing fields, cycles of violence can only be broken by nonviolence. As in 1968, striving for freedom and solidarity, for diversity and equality, and for peace continues.

We know better than people in the Sixties did that matters are complex, that power is never unidirectional, that solutions create new problems, and that no single worldview can or ought to capture the world. All the more important, then, to articulate not only what “we” are against, but also what we are for. When exaggerated attention is paid to the purity of the process—the means employed—at the expense of the ends pursued—the common future we imagine—the results can ultimately be self-defeating.

In the era the Sixties opened and in which we still live, the pursuit of emancipation takes places on multiple, cascading levels, from the self to interpersonal relationships to institutions and the state to humanity and nature as a whole. The challenge is to develop visions of history that do justice to that complex reality of our world-historical condition but that are simple enough to motivate people to get off the couch, to show up, to try, to work hard, to be with others, to have courage, to take risks and face consequences, to fail, and to try some more.

As the historian N. D. B. Connolly said at a recent event commemorating the Columbia student strike of 1968—a celebration held the same weekend as the May ’68 conference mentioned above—we need a “new vocabulary” that can “reach broad constituents” and “mobilize.” In part such new vocabulary involves renewing older terms. Each country is different, and the power of words varies from place to place. In the United States, there is no reason not to reoccupy notions of the American dream, constitutional patriotism (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and the common desire for one’s children to succeed. Fairness and solidarity, along with the myth that the US is mostly a nation of immigrants, are basic and accessible motivational ideas.

Lived history involves being with others, striving for the emancipation of others, in an unbroken chain of shared memory. And on it goes.

Yet some language must be genuinely new, original expressions of the ways in which my freedom is tied to yours, how we are in this together, and the fact that history has sides. How about a little creativity? “This is what democracy looks like.” “No justice, no peace.” Is that all you’ve got? Humor is important. Witness recent signs at marches: “So bad, even introverts are here”; “Now you’ve pissed off grandma”; “The scariest thing in a school should be my grades.” Laughter can build bridges. Innovative messages can also spring from new media. When on March 28, 2018, Parkland survivor David Hogg tweeted 12 of Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s advertisers, it had an immediate impact. That tweet is what a barricade can look like today: drawing a line, marking out space, and saying No in ways that have consequences.

The stakes are too high today to worry about perfection. The choice between protest marches and electing mayors is a false one. Failure is not an option. So too, it would be wrong to conclude that the living traditions of 1968 have failed. They endure, as spring always returns.


This article was commissioned by Arianne Chernock. icon

Featured Image: Vue de la manifestation des étudiants sur la place du Capitole (1968). André Cros. This photograph is part of the Fonds André Cros, preserved by the city archives of Toulouse and released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license by the deliberation n°27.3 of June 23rd, 2017 of the Town Council of the City of Toulouse.