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 enough. However, it does not provide us with another Eighteenth Brumaire—that is to say, with a study of the politics of May 1968. No doubt the actual events are so vividly engraved on the minds of most French intellectuals that they think they know all about them already. It is no accident that the nearest thing to a coherent analytical narrative of the crisis comes from two British journalists, Seale and McConville. Though not exceptional, it is competent, sympathetic, and invaluable to non-Frenchmen if only because it carefully explains what all the confusing initials of the various ideological groups in the Latin Quarter stood for.
Nevertheless, if May 1968 was a revolution which only just failed to overthrow De Gaulle, the situation which allowed what had been, a few weeks earlier, a squabbling collection of campus sects to make the attempt deserves to be analyzed. And so must the reasons for the failure of these sects. So it may be useful to leave aside the nature and novelty of the revolutionary forces and try to clarify the less exciting question of their initial success and comparatively rapid failure.
There were, it is clear, two stages in the mobilization of the revolutionary forces, both totally unexpected by the government, the official power structure and the official opposition, even by the unofficial but recognized opposition of the important left-wing literary intellectuals in Paris. (The established left-wing intelligentsia played no significant part in the May events; Jean-Paul Sartre, with great tact and intuition, recognized this by effacing himself before Daniel Cohn-Bendit, to whom he acted merely as interviewer.) The first stage, roughly between May 3 and 11, mobilized the students. Thanks to the government’s inattention, complacency, and stupidity, a movement of activists in a suburban campus was transformed into a mass movement of virtually all students in Paris, enjoying vast public support—at this stage 61 percent of Parisians were pro-student and only 16 percent definitely hostile—and then into a sort of symbolic insurrection of the Latin Quarter. The government retreated before it, and in so doing spread the movement to the provinces and, especially, to the workers.
The second phase of mobilization, from May 14 to May 27, consisted essentially in the extension of a spontaneous general strike, the largest in the history of France or perhaps of any other country, and culminated with the rejection by the strikers of the deal negotiated on their behalf between the official union leaders and the government. Throughout this period, up to May 29, the popular movement held the initiative; the government, caught on the wrong foot at the start, was unable to recover itself, and grew progressively demoralized. The same is true of conservative and moderate opinion, which was at this time passive, even paralyzed. The situation changed rapidly when De Gaulle at last took action on May 29.
The first thing to observe is that only the second phase created revolutionary possibilities (or, to put it another way, it created the need for the government to take counter-revolutionary action). The student movement by itself was a nuisance, but not a political danger. The authorities grossly underrated it, but this was largely because they were thinking about other things, including other university problems and the bureaucratic infighting between various government departments, which seemed to them more important. Touraine, the author of the most illuminating of the books under review, rightly says that what was wrong with the French system was not that it was too Napoleonic, but that it was too much like the regime of Louis-Philippe, whose government was caught equally on the wrong footing by the riots of 1848, which consequently turned into a revolution.
Yet, paradoxically, the very lack of importance of the student movement made it a most effective detonator of the workers’ mobilization. Having underestimated and neglected it, the government tried to disperse it by force. When the students refused to go home, the only choice was between shooting and a public, humiliating retreat. But how could they have chosen to shoot? Massacre is one of the last resorts of the government in stable industrial societies, since (unless directed against outsiders of one kind or another) it destroys the impression of popular consent on which they rest. Once the velvet glove has been put on the iron fist, it is politically very risky to take it off. Massacring students, the children of the respectable middle class, not to mention ministers, is even less attractive politically than killing workers and peasants. Just because the students were only a bunch of unarmed kids who did not put the regime at risk, the government had little choice but to retreat before them. But in doing so it created the very situation it wished to avoid. It appeared to show its impotence and gave the students a cheap victory. The Paris chief of police, an intelligent man, had more or less told his minister to avoid a bluff which virtually had to be called. That the students did not believe it to be a bluff does not change the reality of the situation.
Conversely, the workers’ mobilization did put the regime in a risky position, which is why De Gaulle was finally prepared to use the ultimate weapon, civil war, by calling on the army. This was not because insurrection was the serious object of anyone, for neither the students, who may have wanted it, nor the workers, who certainly did not, thought or acted in such political terms. It was because the progressive crumbling of government authority left a void, and because the only practicable alternative government was a popular front inevitably dominated by the Communist Party. The revolutionary students may not have considered this a particularly significant political change, and most Frenchmen would almost certainly have accepted it more or less willingly.
Indeed, there was a moment when even those two Hobbesian institutions, the French police and the army, long accustomed to assess the moment when old regimes ought to be abandoned and new ones accepted, allowed it to be understood that they would not regard a legally constituted popular front government as an insurrection which they were obliged to combat. It would not in itself have been revolutionary—except in its coming to power—and it would not have been regarded as such. On the other hand, it is hard to think of any other positive political outcome of the crisis which even revolutionaries could have expected.
But the Popular Front was not ready to occupy the vacuum left by the disintegration of Gaullism. The non-communists in the alliance dragged their feet, since the crisis demonstrated that they represented nobody except a few politicians, while the Communist Party, through its control of the strongest union federation, was for the time being the only civilian force of real significance, and would therefore have inevitably dominated the new government. The crisis eliminated the sham politics of electoral calculation and left visible only the real politics of power. But the Communists in turn had no means of forcing the date of their shotgun wedding with the other opposition groups. For they had themselves been playing the electoral game. They had not mobilized the masses whose action pushed them to the verge of power, and they had not thought of using that action to force their allies’ hand. On the contrary, if Philippe Alexandre is to be believed, they seem to have regarded the strike as something that might stop them from concentrating on the really important job of keeping their allies in line.
De Gaulle, a notoriously brilliant politician, recognized both the moment when his opponents lost their momentum, and the chance of regaining his own initiative. With an apparently imminent communist-led popular front, a conservative regime could at last play out its trump card: the fear of revolution. It was, tactically speaking, a beautifully judged performance. De Gaulle did not even have to shoot. Indeed, not the least curious aspect of the entire May crisis is that the trial of strength was symbolic throughout, rather like the maneuvers of the proverbial Chinese generals of ancient times. Nobody seriously tried to kill anybody. Perhaps three people in all actually were killed, though a considerable number were beaten up.