The French Student Revolt: The Leaders Speak
The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval
Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution 1968
The Spirit of May
Le Mouvement de Mai ou le Communisme Utopique
Of all the many unexpected events during the past eighteen months, a remarkably bad period for prophets, the movement of May 1968 in France was easily the most surprising and, for left-wing intellectuals, probably the most exciting. It seemed to demonstrate what practically no radical over the age of twenty-five, including Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro, believed, namely that revolution in an advanced industrial country was possible in conditions of peace, prosperity, and apparent political stability. The revolution did not succeed and, as we shall see, there is much argument over whether it was ever more than faintly possible that it should succeed. Nevertheless, the proudest and most self-confident political regime of Europe was brought to within a half-inch of collapse. There was a day when almost certainly the majority of De Gaulle’s cabinet, and quite possibly the general himself, expected defeat. This was achieved by a grass-roots popular movement, without the help of anyone within the power structure. And it was the students who initiated, inspired, and at crucial moments actually represented that movement.
Probably no other revolutionary movement contained a higher percentage of people reading and writing books, and it is therefore not surprising that the French publishing industry should have rushed in to supply an apparently unlimited demand. By several months ago at least fifty-two books about the May events had appeared, and the flow continues. All of them are rush jobs, some of them no more than brief articles, padded out with reprints of old papers, press interviews, taped speeches, etc. Two examples of such bookmaking are Servan-Schreiber’s The Spirit of May and the collection The French Student Revolt, though the latter pamphlet has substantial documentary value.
There is, however, no reason why hasty inquests should not be valuable when conducted by intelligent people, and the Latin Quarter of Paris probably contains more of them per square yard than any other spot on earth. In any case the revolutions and counter-revolutions of France have in their time stimulated some of the most distinguished rush jobs of history, most notably Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Moreover, French intellectuals are not merely numerous and articulate, but used to quick and copious writing, a faculty trained by years of moonlighting on reviews and other work for not very generous publishers. Add up the books, reviews, and the newspaper accounts, headed by those in the majestic and indispensable Le Monde, and the typical Parisian revolutionary has probably got through the equivalent of several thousand pages about his or her experiences; or at least talks as though he had.
What can we discover from this mass of literature? By far the greater part tries to explain the movement, to analyze its nature and its possible contributions to social change. A fair proportion tries to fit it into one or another of the analytical categories of its sympathizers—who provide the over-whelming majority of the writers—with more or less originality and special pleading. This is natural …