May ’68 … May ’08

“It is only for those without hope, that hope has been given” (Walter Benjamin)

“Everything is possible” “Power to the imagination”

For the post-war generation, May ’68 was the first “strong” indication of an immense hope. All the structures of capitalist society seemed to become unhinged, every social stratum was in a state of unprecedented ferment, many countries were caught up by these rapid social changes, and political awareness could again forge links with its Marxist roots. The working class, in the first general strike since 1936, in France, in the “hot autumn” in Italy in 1970, refuted the idea of the “disappearance” or “integration” of the proletariat. Millions of strikers claimed that a different world was possible, without putting forward wage demands or demands related to a specific job category. Workers in struggle confronted the unions, and their movements were characterized by self-organization. The workers assemblies in which everyone could participate and speak served as the crucible for making decisions, especially those that furthered a dynamic of extension to other factories. The rejection of the unions as having been integrated into the capitalist state was palpable.

The student movement, on the political plane, in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, in the United States and in Mexico, fought against imperialism vis-à-vis “national liberation struggles” (the Vietnam War), racial discrimination (the segregation of blacks in the US), sexism (with the development of feminism), and questioned the general thrust towards a standardized society, and the penetration of the university for the needs of big business.

The politics of the French Communist Party, the policies of the “USSR” (the crushing of the Hungarian revolt, 1956), were unequivocally denounced, albeit with a partial craze for dissident models of autarkic “socialism” – Chinese, Albanian, Yugoslav, Algerian -- developing. The rediscovery of some of the fundamental texts of Marxism, until then unknown or unavailable occurred: Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Marx’s Grundrisse, and The Results of the Immediate Process of Production. An interaction between students and Marxist thinkers and philosophers (Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch) who had grasped the historical potential of events occurred.

An atmosphere of euphoria, where “everything is possible,” reigned. The couple, the bourgeois family, parental authority, a rigid education, all put in question; the availability of contraception changed attitudes about sexuality. The development of new technologies gave birth to the “consumer society;” those same technologies also gave rise to the illusion of freedom from the assembly line through robotization: were we to replace the certitude of dying from starvation with that of dying from boredom?

Did May’68 announce a revolution? If not, why not?

In ’68, twenty years after the end of World War II, after the period of reconstruction, capitalism again faced economic crisis. According to a mechanistic “Marxist” vision, such a crisis would have irremediably led to a slackening in the growth of the productive forces, a rapid increase in unemployment, a generalized impoverishment of the proletariat, and, therefore, an ascendant movement of working class struggles. May ’68, in such a perspective, was merely a precursor of a teleological movement that had to lead towards revolution. Reality proved far more complex. May ’68, with all the possibilities that it had expressed, exhausted itself in the years that followed. The very changes initiated by the movement were integrated into the trajectory of capitalist society, and its potential for revolt drained away.

Many tried to separate the “good” from the “bad,” to separate the “purely working class movement” from the “student movement,” the “revolutionary struggle” from the “reformist struggle.” We will do nothing of the kind! The meaning of the movements of ’68 was that of a global response of revolt in a not yet revolutionary period. It is necessary to understand the “not yet revolutionary” character of ’68 and of the 1970’s, to see how that period was still full of illusions about the prospects for being able to escape the growing control of [capitalist] technology, and about the imminent prospects for revolution. It is also necessary to grasp how capitalism has transformed its very mode of economic, ideological, political, ecological, domination since then, in order to understand how the conditions of a new period and of revolutionary consciousness are now ripening, and to give a meaning – neither triumphalist nor defeatist – to that gigantic warning signal that was the spring of ’68.

Technological changes, especially the digital revolution, made it possible for capitalism, within a framework of crisis, to substantively transform production, the types of jobs performed by the working class, and the conditions of daily life and ideology linked to those material conditions. In ’68, we still inhabited a world that was narrow and limited for everyone, where everything was scarce, but where access to the consumption of all sorts of “goods” was beginning: cars, TV, travel, higher education. Since then, in the industrialized countries, an apparently generalized abundance has been realized. The increase in the productivity of labor has led to a reduction in the costs of production, and therefore to the production of cheaper commodities, making it possible to reproduce the labor force at a lower price.

’68 also marked the beginning of the end of the Fordist epoch, based on huge proletarian concentrations (blue collar workers) in factories like FIAT Mirafiori or Renault Billancourt. In the 1960’s, if the working class could still count on its traditional bastions in steel, mines, and the auto assembly lines; since then, those concentrations have been scattered or eliminated in the most advanced countries, even as they have developed on a still greater scale in Asia. The proletariat, composed of those who can only survive through the sale of their labor-power, has been broken up into a variety of different modes or categories (part-time, temporary, etc.). Restructurations, the dislocation of enterprises, have destroyed the very physical and geographical fabric of the proletariat in the West, which must find new criteria to identify itself, and to come together. In ’68, the winds of change seemed to come from the periphery of capitalism, from countries struggling for their independence, against colonial or imperialist domination. The “revolutionary forces” of Vietnam, China, and Cuba, seemed by their youthful impetuousness and fervor to be able break the stranglehold of the old world that had entombed every hint of revolt within the ambit of its post-war reconstruction. Certain Western Maoist intellectuals propagated their own craze for the “cultural revolution” as a living alternative to the “Soviet Union’s” socialism of steel and tanks. Only a minority amongst those who called themselves revolutionaries dared to openly criticize that brutal, totalitarian, campaign of capitalist terror, with its tens of millions of victims, such as Charles Reeves (Le tigre de papier) or Simon Leys (Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution). Twenty years later, in 1989, before the cameras of the world, the massacres at Tien-an-Men Square bore witness to the real nature of Chinese “communism:” that of a “government that has declared war on its own people, and sent an army of murderers against the unarmed and peaceful crowds of its capital.” (S. Leys, 1989 preface to Essais sur la Chine, Editions Bouquins, p.3) The invasion of Cambodia by its Vietnamese rival in 1978 had put an end to the atrocities of Pol Pot’s “Khmer Rouge,” though leaving the country quite literally drained of blood, and in a shambles, not unlike that of some of the temples at Angkor Wat. Today, events in Tibet leave no doubt about the nature of the Chinese capitalist regime: the utilization of the most brutal violence to perpetuate the totality of its political power.

1968 also saw the emergence of ecology, and of “Green” political parties. Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are emblematic figures of that concern for the state of the world. Forty years later, the hopes for saving the planet from ecological catastrophe have considerably diminished. Ecology, as a political ideology, has been recuperated as an ideology for purely commercial goals, in becoming a source of new markets for “green” products. Ecology is even utilized in inter-imperialist struggle. The motivation for the production of bio-fuels is not to save the planet, but to free the US and Europe from dependence on imported fossil fuels. The indifference about the consequences of the production of bio-fuels on the emergence of new disequilibria in the production of food for human consumption, and the increase in the suffering of a growing part of the world’s population, cannot fail to shock us: “When, in the US, thanks to 6 billion dollars in subsidies, a bio-fuels policy is set in motion that will drain 138 million tons of corn from the food market, you lay the bases for a crime against humanity because of one’s own thirst for motor fuel… and when the European Union decides to increase the share of bio-fuels to 10% [of its consumption] in 2020, it puts the burden onto the smallest African peasant farmers ….” (Jean Ziegler, advisor to the UN on food, in Libération, April 14, 2008).

May ’68 saw the explosion of a challenge to some of the representative institutions of bourgeois ideology: the Church, marriage, standardized education, the absence of democratic participation in the universities. The student revolts against the Vietnam War constituted an effort to overcome the de-politicization of public life in advanced capitalist society. Post-’68 is no longer managed by an ideology that is “coherent in itself,” perhaps because that ideology has been replaced by a “falsification of activity” (Günther Anders): rationalized labor transcends our imagination, we do not see or we do not know what we are doing. Our political thought is skillfully controlled thanks to a mode of propaganda as systematic and organized as any other kind of production. The control of opinion, the foundation of any government, from the most despotic to the most free, “is infinitely more important in free societies, where one cannot maintain obedience by the lash.” (Noam Chomsky, Dominer le monde ou sauver la planète, Ed. 10/18, p. 15).

The lessons of May ’68: the loss of illusions

With a distance of 40 years, the following lessons can be drawn from that rich historical period that was May ’68.

1) The question of the material and intellectual agents of the upheavals. Although working class and student combativity had been primordial in ’68, the students and the workers remained powerless to change the world. The autonomous organization of the struggle, the most thoroughgoing distrust of the unions and the rejection of secret negotiations by “leaders,” are the unforgettable lessons of May ’68. But it is also necessary to extend the struggles, as quickly as possible, towards the key worker concentrations, as well as towards sectors of the proletariat working outside factories, or who are unemployed.

2) The absence of any substitute for the struggle against the most advanced capitalism. Contrary to the theories about a “displacement of conflicts in advanced capitalist society,” on the link between student movements in the metropoles and struggles of national liberation in the Third World, the proletariat as revolutionary collective worker must confront capitalism and the law of value, in the most developed countries.

3) The “liberation from taboos” in sexual matters, equality between women and men, access to education, did not mean a “liberation of human potential,” but could go hand in hand with the perpetuation of a repressive society by making it possible for capitalism to extend the law of value into domains that it had until then not occupied: the commodification of the emotional and relational aspects of life.

4) The inadequacy of the equation between industrialization, unlimited technological development and communism. As the theorists of the Frankfurt School claimed, the unlimited technological development that has characterized value production especially over the course of the twentieth century has gone hand in hand with the subjugation of humankind: “the confinement of humankind within a rigid and ossified universe by the commodities of comfort and well-being, more and more accessible to the members of advanced industrial societies, and above all the plethora of them, comes at the expense of another human dimension: the possible. …. According to the principle of a negative dialectic, the techniques of industrialization, supposed to liberate humankind from alienated labor and the struggle against scarcity, condemn it ever more harshly to the archaic anathema consisting in working for a living and struggling to survive. Today still, the most elementary needs (food, housing, clothes) are not satisfied except in exchange for the submission of one’s labor-power to the production of value – to the point of rendering superfluous the greater part of humanity that does not fulfill the criteria for that exploitation.” (F. Ollier, Preface, Marcuse ou la dialectique combative, Horizon Critique, 2007, pp. 18-19).

A different world is possible

Forty years after May ’68, the idea of the possible, is still -- indeed more and more -- on the agenda. The proletariat, far from having disappeared, has grown. The four decades since ’68 have been characterized by a massive loss of illusions in the future of the countries of the Third World, in the possibility of freeing the human condition under capitalism, in the unlimited development of technology and consumer goods. How the collective worker can oppose the law of value, pass from a “subject of labor” to a “subject of freedom,” save itself and escape the death of the world, is inscribed in the long process of the development of consciousness by the proletariat of its place in the capitalist social relation, and of the particular place as an actor that can transform the world that it occupies there. That road has become ever more necessary. The “possible” that was announced by May ’68 remains to be created.

Internationalist Perspective


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links