Anyone who was in Paris in May or early June of 1968 will have experienced the sense of revolutionary intoxication, compounded in equal parts of fear and quasi-mystical utopian exaltation, at the shattering of the bonds of orthodoxy, and heightened by a powerful dose of sexual excitement. Those amazing graffiti that spread across the walls of every University building in the Sorbonne and at Paris-Nanterre convey some idea of this apocalyptic atmosphere1 : “No God, no Master. I am God.” “I declare a state of perpetual happiness.” “The Imagination seizes power.” “We are all German Jews.” “The more I make love, the more I want to make the revolution. The more I make the revolution, the more I want to make love.” These are the authentic witnesses of the revolutionary spirit at its most frenetic, a spirit which must have been present in the streets of Paris in 1789, 1848, and 1870, and in Petrograd in 1919. Few of the published reports have given an adequate impression of the true character of the shock-waves that were—and are still—running through the French university system.
The institutional structures through which this revolutionary fervor is channeled are: the comité paritaire, an executive committee with equal representation of students and faculty; the commissions, open committees which anyone can attend, meeting daily for weeks or even months on end to discuss certain critical topics, such as curriculum reform, student power, or the role of the University in politics; and the assemblée générale, a meeting of all undergraduate and graduate students, teaching assistants, and professors, which is the final legislative body, voting by show of hands on propositions formulated by the commissions, accepted by the comité paritaire, and presented for a popular vote.
So far as a casual visitor could discover, there were three overlapping groups among the student activists. The objective of the first, in ascending order of radicalism, is to transform the ancient, hierarchical structure of the French University, with its all-powerful central bureaucracy entrenched in the Ministry of Education, its feudal chieftains in the professors, its timid vassals in the teaching assistants, and its serfs in the students, all parties gripped by a manic obsession with examination and grades. This first group hopes to democratize the University and to shift power in varying degrees into the hands of the students.
The second group believes that it is impossible to create a democratic university in what it describes as a bourgeois capitalist society. It looks on the university not as something to be reformed and improved, however radically, but as something to be destroyed, as the soft underbelly of that society, through which it can be most easily attacked. On May 16 Daniel Cohn-Bendit remarked: “They won’t put us to sleep with false organisations paritaires. We are revolutionaries. We will demonstrate, we will fight, we will refuse to allow examinations to take place in their traditional form, since their purpose is to maintain the privileges of the propertied classes.”2 As a graffitiwriter…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.