The street battles which took place near the Sorbonne in mid-May between students and police were very ritualistic. In the late afternoon while it was still daylight, the students started building barricades. On Friday (May 24) these were particularly elaborate. First they tore up paving stones and piled them up as though they were rebuilding memories of 1789, 1848, 1870. Then, in a mood of dedicated desecration, they axed down—so that they fell lengthwise across the street—a few of the sappy plane trees, spring-leafed, just awake from winter. Then they scattered over the paving stones and among the leaves, boxes, wood, trash from the uncollected strikebound garbage on the sidewalks. Lastly, as the night closed in, they tugged, pulled with much rumblings, neighboring parked cars, braked but dragged over the streets just the same, and placed them on their sides, like trophies of smashed automobiles by the sculptor César, on top of the paving stones, among the branches. In an arrangement of this kind on the Boulevard St. Germain, they had extended the contour of a burned-out car by adding to it the quarter section of one of those wrought-iron grills which encircle at the base the trunks of trees on the boulevards to protect their roots. After the night’s fighting, this chassis had acquired a wonderful coral tint. On its pediment of bluish paving stones it looked like an enshrined museum object. It was left there for two or three days and much photographed by the tourists who poured into the Latin Quarter during the daytime.
THERE IS NOT a sign of a policeman while the barricades are being built. Presumably the rules of what has become a war game are being observed; within a few days the police, after having attempted to occupy, have abandoned the territory of the Sorbonne. The Boulevard Saint-Michel is student territory, as witness the fact that students control the traffic. However the completion of the barricades is the sign that the territory may be invaded. The police are now to be let out of the long crate-like camions with thick wire netting over the windows behind which they wait like mastiffs. One sees them assembled at the end of the Boulevard near the bridge. Their massed forms in the shadows, solid, stirring, helmeted, some of them carrying shields, seem those of medieval knights. A few of the students also carry shields, the lids of dust-bins, and swords or spear-length sticks. Slowly the massed police advance up the street like a thick wedge of mercury up a glass tube. The students retreat to their barricades and set the trash and wood alight. The police now start firing tear gas shells and detonators which make heavy explosions. When they are within a few feet of the advancing black mass of police the students run away, occasionally picking up and hurling back shells which have not exploded.
The beatnik word “cat” suddenly occurs to me. The wild, quickly running, backward and sideways turning, yowling and scratching students are like cats, the police stolidly massively pursuing them are like dogs.
Terrible things happen to students who are caught and taken to the police cells.
Note that my friend, the painter Jean Hélion, told me of a couple seen weeping over the burned-out cadaver of their car on which they had spent their savings.
The center of the Sorbonne is a courtyard enclosed by cliffs of buff-colored stucco walls. They don’t shut out the sky but at the top they make an ugly edge against it. There are two tiers of rather grandiose steps across the whole width of one end of the courtyard leading up to the pillared chapel. Along the sides of the courtyard there are now tables piled with books, magazines, pamphlets, leaflets, etc., all of them “revolutionary.” Behind the tables students sit, displaying these wares. Most of the slogans and posters appear to proclaim communism. But on closer inspection one finds that there is no variety of communism here to offer any comfort to Moscow or the French official Communist Party. Even a magazine called La Nouvelle Humanité turns out to be Trotskyist, abhorrent to the sellers of the old Humanité who have been banished to the outer gates at the entrance of the Sorbonne. The brands of revolution offered by the students are Maoist, Castroite, Trotskyist. Pictures of Mao, Che Guevara, Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, are displayed on walls, hoardings, pamphlets, and leaflets. Stalin’s portrait put in a brief appearance one day, but quickly disappeared.
One day there was a table for Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Algerians; posters attacking Zionism were on the wall behind them. The Sorbonne is cosmopolitan French culture. I noticed among the bewildering assortment of advertisements—appeals, bulletins posted everywhere or leaflets thrust into your hand—directives to Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and German students. And of course there were Americans. Two sat rather innocuously at a table collecting signatures for a petition in support of Mendès-France. A committee of American students hangs out at the sister offices of the Sorbonne in the Rue Censier, where there are also the American draft resisters, a bit left out of all this.
Entrances lead out of the Sorbonne courtyard onto passages and stairways, all of them plastered with notices. Almost every departmental office and classroom has been taken over by committees, organizers, planners, talkers: Committee of Action, Committee of Coordination, Committee of Occupation, Committee of Cultural Agitation, and the sinisterly named Committee of Rapid Intervention.
There seems a tendency for the movement to proliferate cells, activities, categories, subdivisions. I noticed that the Commando Poétique has its functions subdivided into “Tracts poétiques—affiches poétiques—création collective—publications à bon marché—liaisons interartistiques—Recherches théoretiques—commandos poétique revolutionnaires—praxis poétique revolutionnaire.”
THE POEMS I saw (Le Monde published a selection from them) seemed unoriginal—a mixture of surrealism with the socially conscious leftist writing of the Thirties, and a return to the political style of Eluard. The real poetry of the revolution is its slogans, politically revolutionary, but imaginative and witty. They are more revealing of the deepest impulses of the movement than most of the pamphlets and pronouncements. They all come together—as do all the finest impulses of the students—in the magnificently summary: “Imagination is Revolution.” One understands from the slogans why the students cannot get on with the great trade unions, political parties, official communism:
Prenez vos désirs pour des réalités. Monolithiquement bête, le Gaullisme
est l’inversion de la vie. Ne changer pas d’employeurs
changer l’emploi de la vie. Vive la communication à bas la téle-
communication. Plus je fais l’amour plus je fais la
revolution plus je fais la revolution plus
je fais l’amour. Luttez dans la perspective d’une vie
passionante. Toute vue des choses qui n’est pas
étrange est fausse.
They equate revolution with spontaneity, participation, communication, imagination, love, youth. Relations between the students and young workers who share—or who are converted to—these values are of the first importance. They dramatize a struggle not between proletarian and capitalist interest so much as between forces of life and the dead oppressive weight of the bourgeoisie. They are against the consumer society, paternalism, bureaucracy, impersonal party programs, and static party hierarchies. Revolution must not become ossified. It is la revolution permanente.
One thing—perhaps the only one—which the Paris students have in common with the beatniks and hippies of the psychedelic generation is that they wish to live the life of the revolution even while they are taking action to bring it about. But they are opposed to drugs and other such eccentrically individualistic forms of self-realization: partly because their view of the revolution is of a community rather than of the individual, but still more because they have a sharp political awareness of the counter-revolutionary effects of drug-taking.
This May, for a few weeks at the Sorbonne, the students lived the communal life of sharing conditions, of arriving at all-important decisions by the method of “direct democracy”—that is to say by consulting the action committees of the movement (les bases) and not by imposing decisions from the top—of having meetings which are as far as possible spontaneous, with a different chairman for each meeting, resisting the “cult of personality.”
However, by the end of May, under pressure from government and police, attacked by the Communists and without support from the Confédération Générale of workers, the students had to reconsider their concept of organization. This they could not do without questioning “direct democracy.” A press conference at the Sorbonne on the first of June developed into a disagreement between Cohn-Bendit and the other student leaders as to whether organization for action and self-defense should arise spontaneously from discussions at les bases or should be imposed by the leaders. Cohn-Bendit thought that the dynamism of the movement should continue to come from the bases. His own words:
The only chance of creating revolutionary forms that will not become ossified (scelerosé) lies in waiting until a common purpose has been discovered among all the committees of action from discussing matters at the base.
His colleagues agreed on “spontaneity” as a principle but did not think that the circumstances left them much time for discussion in action committees. They pointed out that they had to decide on measures for “auto-defense” immediately. One of them, Weber, said that the committees were too disorganized and uncoordinated to be capable of auto-defense in the face of the very well organized Gaullist forces. The discussion about organization is crucial, because the danger inherent in too little organization is defeat by the Gaullist and communist forces outside the movement; while the danger of too much organization is defeat by loss of spontaneity from below. The demonstrations and marches, the barricades, were extraordinary examples of spontaneity with a minimum of organization. The undirected discussion at the Odéon Theatre, in which the chairman has to struggle with a tumultuous audience, succeed but do result in disorder and waste of energy. The same must be true, I suspect, of the committee of action. But I sympathize with Cohn-Bendit’s view that organization should not be imposed from above.
DURING the first half of May a good many Parisian intellectuals, as well as many students, seemed to think of the student revolt as part of a larger revolution which had already happened in France. Of course it is not that, and the realization that the university revolt is threatened has added urgency to the debate about “organization” and “direct democracy.” The students are reluctant to discuss the Bolsheviks and the anarchists of the Spanish Republic who also said they wanted direct democracy. Or, reminded of this, they take refuge in the idea that theirs is an unprecedented generation. To recall the failures of previous revolutions is to seem in their eyes patronizing, paternalistic. The London Times in an editorial pointed out as a weakness of the students that they did not appear to have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But they would not want to read it and if they did read it would find there nothing which they thought applied to their case.
Perhaps because they are so insulated in the Sorbonne, without their being literary, they yet keep on reminding one of behavior and characters in literature. There is something about their movements which reminds one of The Lord of the Flies, with a thuggish Katanga “Committee of Sudden Intervention” ready to emerge from the cellars to produce a final fall. And when one has stepped into the Sorbonne one often seems to be in the world of Alice Through the Looking Glass where all the values of the circumambient trafficking world outside are reversed.
THE EXPLOSION OF TALK
In a classroom there is a discussion going on about the nature of work in the consumer society. The room is crowded and contains older as well as young people. The discussion is dominated by two young men, one of whom, in the well of the classroom, is evidently a worker. He has a lean face with jutting features and bristly straw-colored hair emphasizing the line of the back of his head which seems almost continuous with his neck. He talks about work, which, he says, in all circumstances must be hard and boring. The opposite of work, he says, is pleasure, and he describes, quite exhibitionistically, his own holidays which are spent, it seems, in driving about the country on his motorcycle and laying as many girls as he can pick up. Obviously this is the opposite of what is meant by work.
He is confronted by a student standing a few feet above him. He is small and dark and vigorous and has in his eyes and on his lips an expression like that of the blind made miraculously to see in a cartoon of Raphael. He says that work is joy if you are one of a group, a collective (any backward echoes of that remark are suppressed by his smile). Joy is participation, it is release from the self. He describes holidays that he and his companions have made together where they have done a great deal of work. The individual must not be like the bourgeois intellectual, alienated and separate, existing in no “social context,” but that of other intellectuals like himself; nor must he be a cog in a machine. He must be in society like a fish in the water.
The worker interrupts and says, You are not talking about work, you are talking about sport. Sport is not work, it is the free development of the individual. Work means taking orders from someone set above you. The student says that in the revolution, automation will replace the kind of work which is slavery. Work will then consist of participation. There will be no oppression of power because there will be a constant toing and froing between those at the base of society and those at the top, a vital current. Machines will function but the goods and services they produce will be a means for leading a life of better value, and not ends which prove that the individual owns things or acquires status. He says the students and the workers combining together could achieve this kind of society: not the intellectuals who are void because they reflect problems peculiar to them, outside the context of society. To be truly revolutionary, you have to experience reality.
This discussion was naïve. Often at the Sorbonne and the Odéon one heard things worse than naïve, chaotic and stupid and dull, and one longed to hear a professor talk for half an hour about Racine. There was wisdom though perhaps in the relief of talking simply as an act, like action painting. Talk, uninhibited, crude, theoretical, confessional, has overtaken Paris, Lyons, Bordeaux, and other cities. It is the breaking out of forces long suppressed. Not just the Sorbonne and the Censier, the Beaux Arts, the Odéon, were filled with talk but also the streets themselves. Another part of the French revolutionary tradition had emerged—the idea of joining forces with others in the streets—dans la rue! In the Rue de Rennes I find myself standing in a group of shoppers and shop assistants outside a closed Monoprix. A frustrated shopper is saying indignantly, “Where will all this end? In communism, universal poverty.” “Not at all,” says a natty black-coated worker, “Communism means more refrigerators, more television sets, more automobiles. Le communisme, c’est le luxe pour tous.”
THIS DEFINITION shows how difficult it is for the students—conscious, many of them, of themselves as bourgeois, and seeking for a world in which material things are subservient to other human values—to get on with the workers, most of whom, of course, want consumer goods. The relation of the French students to “les ouvriers” is not unlike that of the American students to the Negroes. It cannot be seen just politically, but as a love affair in which the guilt-conscious whites and bourgeois are trying to win the members of what they regard as a wronged class to their own ideas of what are real values.
Not that the students want altogether to dispense with washing machines and refrigerators. Their attitude is shown in a document of thirty theses drafted at the Censier by a group called Les Yeux Crévés. It begins by defining the students as a privileged class, not so much economically as because “we alone have the time and possibility to become aware of our own conditions and the condition of society. Abolish this privilege and act so that everyone may become privileged.” It goes on to say that students are workers like everyone else. They are not parasites, economic minors. They do not condemn “en bloc” the consumer society. “One has to consume, but let us consume what we have decided to produce…. We wish to control not only the means of production but also those of consumption—to have a real choice and not a theoretic one.”
It is significant that the movement of the students at the Sorbonne—called the movement of the 22 Mars—started among sociologists at the newly built extension of the University in the desolate industrial suburb of Nanterre. A long declaration by Cohn-Bendit and some of his colleagues, in Esprit (the May number), depicts the sociology students as seeing sociology as a statistical account of existing society, the result of American influence. The very few sociology students who would get jobs after they left the university would be engaged in such activities as making consumer reports. They realized that sociology instead of being an instrument of bourgeois society, could be turned against it to make a revolution and construct a new society. Here the beginnings of an ideology of the students are implicit.
INEVITABLY perhaps, the students are unself-critical. They do not notice inconsistencies in their own attitudes, even when, to an outsider, it must seem that these could be disastrous. This struck me when I heard a student who had organized the revolt at Strasbourg University describe his experiences to a great gathering in the Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne. He spoke about the professors with whom the students had to deal with that kind of contempt which is current among some students. He told how he had been asked by someone why he had not explained things adequately to the authorities at his university, and how he had answered: “because one does not enter into discussions with people who are non-existent.” People you do not talk to because they are non-existent! Whatever justification there might be for adopting this attitude when confronted with the stuffed geese of Strasbourg, I could not help wondering as I listened how it would work out in the “direct democracy.” Supposing—I thought—our student from Strasbourg goes to a factory or to a village where there are peasants, is it not likely that he will meet a few people with attitudes not altogether dissimilar from those he encountered at Strasbourg—people “who understand nothing,” (qui n’ont rien compris): that was another of his phrases for describing those who did not agree with him? And had not one heard all this before? Did not the Soviets start off very willing to talk to anyone and everyone who agreed with them, and then make the horrible discovery that there were still bourgeois elements floating around, and that there were very recalcitrant peasants, people who understand nothing, people finally whom one stops talking to—or just stops talking? At this point the phrase “On ne parle pas avec des gens qui n’existent pas” begins to acquire a sinister ring.
The students are, I emphasize, conscious of these dangers and do not wish to repeat them. I wonder what might happen if someone wrote on the walls of the Sorbonne: “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.” If it were written there, I wonder how long it would last. I noticed that they are very good at deleting.
CRABBED AGE AND YOUTH CANNOT LIVE TOGETHER
As I left the Odéon Theatre one evening two youths looking more like Dickensian street urchins perhaps than students called to each other: “Why doesn’t he cut his hair?” “Perhaps he should tear it out with his nails!” “Perhaps it’s a wig!” Respect for white hairs is certainly not one of the dues paid in Paris this May.
Usually, though, the old just feel invisible as the blacks were supposed to do in America. “The young make love, the old obscene gestures,” a slogan in the anarchist magazine L’Enragé runs. They have read Romeo and Juliet it seems, but not Antony and Cleopatra.
I observed to a contemporary that I enjoyed, on the whole, my invisibility. He said: “I thought that too until I went one day with my twenty-year-old son to the Sorbonne. I sat there quietly, and as I had to slip out early was specially grateful to be a ghost. But directly I had gone another student came up and said to my son: ‘Qui était ce vieux con avec toi?’ “
One night I am at the Odéon, Jean-Louis Barrault’s old-style avant garde theater which the students have “liberated” and made open for completely unplanned marathon discussions which go on almost till daybreak. The scene is like the sixth act of some play in the Theater of Cruelty in which the audience have rung down the curtain and taken over the house for their own performance. And they find themselves much more entertaining than Ionesco and Beckett, I am afraid. The performance itself—the debates for which there are no subjects set—can be chaotic, and I am often sorry for the student chairmen who stand in the aisle yelling “Silence! N’interrompez pas! Un peu de l’ordre! Discipline!”
EVERYONE calls everyone “comrade” and most of us here are in the world where the revolution has already happened, although there are also intruding misbelievers, generously admitted, howled at, but nevertheless, despite many interruptions, intermittently, fragmentarily, listened to, because whatever might happen later (and I have these fears), the students are most noble in their attempt to be open to all points of view—even that of Gaullists and of the Fascist members of the “Occident.”
On a particular occasion I was suddenly struck with a thought—or a hysterical seizure—that I ought to communicate to the Sorbonne students the fact that when I spoke with the students at Columbia some of them had asked me whether the students at the Sorbonne had any thoughts about them. I was no emissary, I had not been told to say anything, and yet I felt I should transmit this. So comforting myself that with my white hair I would not be listened to anyway, I touched the arm of the particularly vigorous young man who was conducting the audience and, gradually acquiring some of the mannerism of Leonard Bernstein, I mentioned, humbly, that I would like to say a word. There was only one disapprobating yell (which was silenced by the young chairman with a severe “On a écouté même Jean-Louis Barrault“) and I started to speak my poor French to what seemed an electric silence. To my amazement they listened and then started asking questions. Could I compare the situation of students in American Universities with that in France? One student even offered the opinion that the American students were far more advanced than “ours.” Then someone asked whether it was true that all American students were always under the influence of drugs. I struggled to answer these questions and then, at the first opportunity, left the theater and walked to a bar. I was followed there by three students. Then one of them came up to me very shyly and said: “Monsieur…Monsieur…Est ce que c’est vrai que vous êtes M. Marcuse?”
When the discussions at the Odéon happened to light on a “subject” they could be serious and very sympathetic. One night a young man got up in the gallery (people spoke from whatever part of the theater they happened to be sitting in) and (with his head, seen by me from below, seeming to butt against André Masson’s multi-colored ceiling) he stated very simply that he had taken into his care some adolescent delinquents and that he felt he was having little success in helping them, and he would like to hear the views of the audience about delinquency. At this person after person got up and discussed the problem, seriously, sensibly, though without saying anything new.
It was surprising how many people there turned out to be social workers. The conditions in prisons and slums that they reported were deplorable. The discussion continued on a level of concern and without silliness for over an hour. After which I got up to leave, but was stopped at the exit by a Tunisian student who said to me: “They all talk about the harm prison does people—but to me it did good. I was sent to prison in Tunis, I cried, I cursed, I kicked them and I was beaten, and I prayed all day, but at the end of two years I started writing poems and stories, and for that reason here I am—thanks to prison—at the Sorbonne.” “Go and tell them that,” I said and followed him back into the theater where, a few minutes later, he made his speech, which, in the telling, turned out to be mostly an attack on President Bourguiba. Still he made his point and ended dramatically: “From prison, I learned that in order to achieve anything in this life you have to suffer….” A remark which offered none of those present any handle to catch on to.
AT THIS MEETING there was a very distinguished German lady philosopher, with whom I went out afterward for a coffee. She punctured euphoria. What she noticed, she said, in all these discussions, was that they consisted of people saying things as though for the first time, and as though they had no continuity with anything said before or to be said after. Moreover what was said came out of ideas we had all read in books anyway, or were ideas snatched from the intellectual atmosphere. She said she thought the real problem was not that the young wanted to have no contact with the old but that, precisely, they lacked contact with truly adult minds. The teachers and older people with whom they had to deal were in fact mentally adolescent. She attributed a good many of the student’s attitudes to a shallow nihilism which had been the fashion for a long while. She wondered whether the university had not already been destroyed, and whether it would recover. A university was to her mind not a place where there were only the best teachers but where there were values so pervasive that even an inferior teacher could fit in without letting the standard down.
Journalism inevitably falsifies by concentrating on the scene and the subject, in a situation where what is most significant may be not the scene and not the subject. More important probably than the happenings which I have been describing in Paris in the spring were the non-happenings. Walk a few hundred yards away from one area of the Quartier Latin and despite the strikes and the students there was a remarkably normal atmosphere. One way of describing it would be to say that it was like an over-long rather restrained holiday, with welldressed people strolling on the sidewalks, the cafés crowded, the food in restaurants up to its usual standard, and many small shops open. Most foreign tourists, it is true, had gone away, but then Parisians, having nothing else to do, were touring their own city, including the Sorbonne in which the actors were inextricably mixed up with the spectators. The only people who seemed to be notably suffering from shortages (of their clientèle) were the male tarts. I asked one of them what he thought of “les étudiants” and he shrieked, with an extraordinary gesture—“Scandaleux!”
Dust and dirt from ungathered rubbish exhaled a vague smog, a halo over the streets like old varnish over a new green painting, but the presence of these odors was largely compensated for by the absence of petrol. One had to walk long distances but this was good for health and not much slower than going by car when there is traffic.
The spring itself reasserted what was so much more apparent than the revolutionary situation—the non-revolutionary one. In fact, if there were going to be a revolution, it would be—everyone I think agreed—against the evidence of one’s senses which lay down certain external rules for revolutions. The weather, of course, can be contradictory, but it is difficult to think of a revolution taking place when—in daylight at all events—everyone looks particularly good humored. For the result of the explosion of talk in Paris this May was that most people looked more self-complacent—even friendly—than they have done in Paris for years.
YET there was that ugly evening which happened after De Gaulle’s second speech in which he adroitly substituted for the referendum he had so mistakenly offered in his first speech a referendum under a more resounding name—a General Election. He accompanied this gesture with the release of a flood of gasoline upon which came floating in their automobiles a flood of Gaullistes. They came joyously claxoning up the boulevards, hooting at one another, hooting to urge others to hoot, stopping their cars suddenly, getting out to embrace some fellow driver or passenger, in their chic clothes and their make-up, their tawdry elegance, the triumphant bacchanal of the Social World of Conspicuous Consumption, shameless, crowing, and vulgarer than any crowd I have seen on Broadway or in Chicago. It would have been agonizing at the best of times, but it was more so when one thought of the students, the self-condemned secular monastics of the Sorbonne.
The next day the students had a great parade on the Boulevard Montparnasse and it seemed like a farewell. I walked away from it down the Rue de Rennes and saw an extraordinary sight. In the hot sun, the whole road seemed covered with snow. Actually it was torn-up newspapers. I asked a bystander what had happened. “Nothing,” she said, “except that France is mad.” The students had seen announcements in France Soir of the end of the strikes, the end of their movement, and they had scattered hundreds of copies of the newspaper, in fury, all over the road. Oddly enough, with all the fighting and the barricades, it was the first sign I had seen of real anger.
If it were possible to speak to them, I would like to say two things. The first is that however much the university needs a revolution, and the society needs a revolution, it would be disastrous for them not to keep the two revolutions apart in their minds and their acts. For the university, even if it does not conform to their wishes, is an arsenal from which they can draw the arms which can change society. To say, “I won’t have a university until society has a revolution,” is as though Karl Marx were to say “I won’t go the reading room of the British Museum until it has a revolution.”
The second thing is that although the young today do have reasons for distrusting the older generation, anything that is worth doing involves their having to get old. What they are now is not so important as what they will be ten years from now. And if ten years from now they have become their own idea of what it is to be old, then what they are fighting for now will have come to nothing.
July 11, 1968