Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

"1968" in Finland Risto Alapuro
1968 in 2018: The Resonance of a Rebellious Year Donatella della Porta
1968 - Revolution of Perception Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey
Permanent Reflection and Inclusion Boosts. The Heritage of the Generation of 1968 Armin Nassehi
Resistance, Transgression, Freedom Csaba Szaló
May 68: The Debate Continues! Michel Wieviorka
The Past in Action: Memories of 1968 in the Italian and Spanish Student Movements Lorenzo Zamponi

May 68: The Debate Continues!

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018

Michel Wieviorka, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales / Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, France

May 68 continues to be the subject of countless discussions, three of which deserve special consideration by sociologists.

1. A global movement or not?

The first issue is the global or international nature of the movement. If we agree that its first expressions were in Berkeley in 1964 and that it was a very real phenomenon in 1968 in numerous countries in Europe, Africa, Japan, the United States of America and Latin America, we must also admit that its meanings were very different. The Prague Spring, for example, was primarily a challenge to a Communist government subordinated to Moscow, whereas in Berkeley, at the outset, the student revolt was a demand for freedom of political expression in the university primarily to assert their opposition to the Vietnam War. Consequently, in Prague, in the name of democracy, young (and not so young) people rose up against communist domination related to the Soviet bloc; in Berkeley, no less democratically, students challenged the involvement of their country in an armed conflict in which the issue was American opposition to the self-same communism. Mid-way between these two positions, in several Western countries, political Leftism contributed an ideological resolution to the tension experienced by all those who wished to express their belief in Marxism as an emancipatory form of thought, while opposing the war waged by the United States in Vietnam. Leftism, which Lenin described as ‘An infantile disorder’ of Communism, did maintain links with Marxism, whether Leninist or not, but remained distinct from parties and regimes which practiced Marxism in concrete terms.

If these movements do have something in common, apart from their appearance at the same point in time, it is undoubtedly primarily democratic and cultural. Everywhere, despite its steady advance in different versions, modernity was being undermined by young people, often students, but not always, determined to end forms of power which in fact were not very democratic and tended to be archaic and authoritarian. These challenges, particularly in Western Europe, were paradoxically expressed in a discourse using categories which attributed to them a meaning which was totally alien. The vocabulary was Marxist or anarchist and in reality quite unsuited to the cultural input and inventiveness of the actors; the new wine of the democratic and cultural movement frequently filled the old bottles of past revolutions.

2. The most significant meanings of the action

A second discussion focuses on the fundamental nature of the ‘movement’, the term used by those who identified with it in positive fashion; in the vocabulary of the opponents the term used was the ‘events’. Here we would have to analyse the question country by country, then compare them. The reader will permit me to limit my example to the case of France alone, even if it is not obvious that it be paradigmatic in all respects.

French sociology, and in broader terms, the intelligentsia, have produced a vast set of interpretations of May 68. [1] The most hostile, with Raymond Aron, Michel Crozier or Raymond Boudon, [2] saw it as primarily a crisis in the university and the influence of ideology on the actors. They also criticised May 68 in the name of what this movement challenged, as being the rise of individualism, and even, with Régis Debray [3] that of the consumer society. Amongst the most favourable analyses, in particular some of those of the Trotskyist leaders spoke of revolution or of ‘dress rehearsal’, as if one could compare May 68 with Russia in 1905, awaiting 1917. [4] This hypothesis was unacceptable as the actors had never intended to take state power. In fact, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, two types of analysis deserve more serious consideration than others.

One, drafted in the heat of the moment, by Edgar Morin with Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort [5] referred to the ‘cultural breach’ opened up by the students in revolt against the authority of General de Gaulle in political matters, against the ‘Mandarins’ in the University or against the control exerted over the televisual media by the government. The world of labour, by joining with the students, seized the opportunity on the shop floor and called for a general strike, which spread like wildfire spontaneously throughout the country like a contagious disease. The first strike originated with the employees in the ORTF (Office de la Radio et Télévision Française), that is in the public broadcasting services.

Alain Touraine suggested another analysis, also at the time of the events; it differed by introducing a historical and sociological perspective, but was not contradictory. [6] He considers May 68 in France to be the point at which the students, who are the actors of a new post-industrial society, shape the social movement which will be specific to this type of society. At the same time, the actors of industrial society, the working class movement, are still capable of expressing a central conflict. These were to be the last major conflagrations.

With hindsight, this approach does have the considerable advantage of enabling a reading of French social history over the past fifty years. On one hand, countless struggles, ‘new movements’ featuring women, homosexuals, ecologists, anti-nuclear activists, regionalists, etc. have been part of community life ever since. On the other, the working-class movement has steadily declined and totally lost its centrality, so much so that Marine Le Pen, in her presidential campaign as candidate for the Front National in 2017, referred to the workers as the ‘forgotten’ and the ‘invisible’.

3. The Impact of May 68

Finally, a third question deserves our consideration: what has been the impact of May 68? Once again, I will focus on the French experience as an example. The political impact has been either weak, or negative. Weak, if we take the classical institutional system. The meeting at the Stade Charlety on 27 May 1968 with Pierre Mendes France and Michel Rocard was the only attempt to prolong the movement under the banner of what might be referred to as the ‘second left’. There was no follow-up. In contrast, as from 30 May, after a period of indecision, the right recovered, with its major demonstration on the Champs Elysées and the announcement by General de Gaulle of a referendum. The left did not come back into power until 1981 when François Mitterand was elected President of the Republic on a basis relatively distant from the aspirations of May 68.

The political impact could even be said to be negative if we consider the excesses which characterised the fall of the movement. Those who sought to maintain action at any cost despite the recession became radicalised, were attracted by violence, calls for civil war, came close to terrorism and some have described the decade following 68 as the ‘years of lead’ (‘anni de piombi’). In Italy, this ‘inversion’ of the movement took the form of widespread terrorism. [7] Leftism thus prospered while the Communist Party started to decline historically, a process which has been ongoing ever since and was in many ways inaugurated by May 68.

On the other hand, the social impact of the movement was very important. To end the strikes which were in effect paralysing the country, the government and the employers accepted considerable advances under the Grenelle Agreements (thus called from the name of the street where the Ministry for Social Affairs is located). These included a rise of roughly 30% in the minimum wage and of approximately 10% in all salaries, the creation of trade union branches within firms, etc.

The specifically intellectual impact of the movement was perhaps what was most negative. After 68, even more than in the preceding years, the dominant ideology, particularly in the social sciences, which experienced tremendous expansion at the time, was characterised by structuralism in all its variants, whether it be Marxist, Marxist-leaning, or not. From Claude Lévi-Strauss to Michel Foucault, from Louis Althusser to Jacques Lacan, from Pierre Bourdieu to Roland Barthes, in all fields structuralism shaped research and intellectual life. One of its specific features was that it focused on systems, structures, mechanisms, machines and reproduction; it did not focus on the production of society, its actors and even less their subjectivity which some considered should be annihilated. At times, the death of the subject is their horizon. The two philosophers, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut have referred to this as ‘la pensée 68’ or 68-style thinking. But structuralism flourished primarily after May 68. [8]

It is in fact the cultural impact of the movement which constitutes its most lasting and most impressive contribution. May 68 put end to authority in its most recognised, established, traditional aspects. This, moreover, is the charge still laid against it today, as it was at the time. It encouraged counter-culture, freed speech and imagination, transformed the arts and literature and opened the way to new challenges, the revival of feminism and the campaigns against homophobia. It inaugurated the critique of institutions which have, since then, been more receptive to democracy and human rights. The ‘breach’ has never been closed since.

[1] For a useful synthesis, cf. Philippe Bénéton and Jean Touchard, « Les interprétations de la crise de mai-juin 1968 », Revue française de science politique, année 1970, 20-3, pp. 503-544
[2] Raymond Aron, La révolution introuvable. Réflexions sur les évènements de mai, Paris, Fayard, 1968 ; Michel Crozier, « Révolution libérale ou révolte petite bourgeoise », Communication n°12, 1968, pp. 39-40; Raymond Boudon, « La crise universitaire française : Essai de diagnostic sociologique », Les Annales, mai-juin 1969
[3] Régis Debray, Mai 68. Une contre-révolution réussie, éd. Mille et Une Nuits, Paris, 2008 (réédition)
[4] Daniel Bensaïd, Henri Weber, Mai 68 : une répétition générale, éd. Maspéro, Paris, 1968
[5] Edgar Morin, Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis, La brèche, éd. Fayard, Paris, 2008 (réédition)
[6] Alain Touraine, Le mouvement de mai ou le communisme utopique, Paris, éd. du Seuil, 1968
[7] Cf. for this notion of inversion, as for the analysis of the Italian experience, Michel Wieviorka, The Making of Terrorism, University of Chicago Press, 1993
[8] Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, La pensée 68, essai sur l’anti-humanisme contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 1985