Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

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.

Whatever happened, both Gaullists and revolutionaries united in blaming the French Communist Party, either for planning revolution or for sabotaging it. Neither line of argument is very significant except as an indication of the crucial role of the C.P. in May. It was clearly the only civilian organization, and certainly the only part of the political opposition, which kept both its influence and its head. This is not really surprising, unless we assume that the workers were revolutionary in the same way as the students, or that they were as disgusted with the C.P.

But though the workers were certainly far more advanced than their leaders, e.g., in their readiness to raise questions of social control in industry which the General Labour Federation was simply not thinking about, the divergences between leaders and followers in May were potential rather than actual. The political proposals of the C.P. almost certainly reflected what most workers wanted, and quite certainly reflected the traditional mode of thinking of the French Left (“defense of the Republic,” “union of all on the left,” “a popular government,” “down with one-man rule,” etc). As for the general strike, the unions had taken it over almost immediately. Their leaders were negotiating with government and the bosses, and until they came back with unsatisfactory terms, there was no reason at all to expect a major revolt against them. In brief, while the students started their revolt in a spirit of equal hostility to De Gaulle and the C.P. (from which most of their leaders had seceded or been expelled), the workers did not.

The Communist Party was therefore in a position to act. Its leadership met daily to assess the situation. It thought it knew what to do. But what was it doing? It was certainly not trying to preserve Gaullism, for reasons of Soviet foreign policy or any other. As soon as the overthrow of De Gaulle began to look possible, i.e., between three and four days after the spontaneous sit-ins started to spread, it formally staked its own and the popular front’s immediate claim to power. On the other hand it consistently refused to have anything to do with advocating insurrection, on the grounds that this would be playing into De Gaulle’s hands.

In this it was correct. The May crisis was not a classical revolutionary situation, though the conditions for such a situation might have developed very rapidly as a result of this sudden, unexpected break in a regime which turned out to be much more fragile than anyone had anticipated. The forces of government and its widespread political support were in no sense divided and disintegrated, but merely disoriented and temporarily paralyzed. The forces of revolution were weak, except in holding the initiative. Apart from the students, the organized workers, and some sympathizers among the college-educated professional strata, their support consisted not so much in allies as in the readiness of a large mass of uncommitted or even hostile opinion to give up hope in Gaullism and accept quietly the only available alternative. As the crisis advanced, public opinion in Paris became much less favorable to Gaullism, somewhat more favorable to the old Left, but no clear preponderance emerges from the public opinion surveys. Had the Popular Front come, it would certainly have won the subsequent election, just as De Gaulle won his—but victory is a great decider of loyalties.

The best chance of overthrowing Gaullism was therefore to let it beat itself. At one point—between May 27 and 29—its credibility would have crumbled so much that even its officials and followers might have given it up for lost. The worst policy would have been to give Gaullism the chance of rallying its supporters, the state apparatus, and the uncommitted against a clearly defined, and militarily ineffective, minority of workers and students. Unwilling to expel the striking workers from the factories by force, the army and police were entirely reliable against an insurrection. They said so. And, indeed, De Gaulle recovered precisely because he turned the situation into a defense of “order” against “red revolution.” That the C.P. was not interested in “red revolution” is another matter. Its general strategy was right for anyone, including revolutionaries, who unexpectedly discovered a chance of overthrowing the regime in a basically non-revolutionary situation. Assuming, of course, that they wanted to take power.

The communists’ real faults were different. The test of a revolutionary movement is not its willingness to raise barricades at every opportunity, but its readiness to recognize when the normal conditions of routine politics cease to operate, and to adapt its behavior accordingly. The French C.P. failed both these tests, and in consequence failed not only to overthrow capitalism (which it did not want to do just then) but to install the popular front (which it certainly did). As Touraine has sarcastically observed, its real failure was not as a revolutionary but even as a reformist party. It consistently trailed behind the masses, failing to recognize the seriousness of the student movement until the barricades were up, the readiness of the workers for an unlimited general strike until the spontaneous sit-ins forced the hands of its union leaders, taken by surprise once again when the workers rejected the terms of strike settlement.

Unlike the non-Communist Left, it was not pushed aside, since it had both organization and mass support from the grass roots. Like them, it continued to play the game of routine politics and routine labor unionism. It exploited a situation not of its own making, but it neither led nor even understood it, except perhaps as a threat to its own position within the labor movement by the bitterly hostile ultra-Left. Had the C. P. recognized the existence and scope of the popular movement and acted accordingly, it might just have gained sufficient momentum to force its reluctant allies on the old Left into line. One cannot say much more than this, for the chances of overthrowing Gaullism, though real for a few days, never amounted to more than a reasonable possibility. As it was, it condemned itself, during those crucial days of May 27-29, to waiting and issuing appeals. But at such times waiting is fatal. Those who lose the initiative lose the game.

The chances of overthrowing the regime were diminished not only by the failure of the Communists, but by the character of the mass movement. It had no political aims itself, though it used political phraseology. Without profound social and cultural discontents, ready to emerge at a relatively slight impetus, there can be no major social revolutions. But without a certain concentration on specific targets, however peripheral to their main purpose, the force of such revolutionary energies is dispersed. A given political or economic crisis, a given situation, may provide such precise enemies and objectives automatically: a war which must be ended, a foreign occupier who must be expelled, a crack in the political structure imposing specific and limited options, such as whether or not to support the Spanish government of 1936 against the generals’ insurrection. The French situation provided no such automatic targets of concentration.

On the contrary, the very profundity of the critique of society implied or formulated by the popular movement left it without specific targets. Its enemy was “the system.” To quote Touraine:

The enemy is no longer a person or a social category, the monarch or the bourgeoisie. He is the totality of the depersonalised, “rationalised,” bureaucratized modes of action of socio-economic power….

The enemy is by definition faceless, not even a thing or an institution, but a program of human relations, a process of depersonalization; not exploitation which implies exploiters, but alienation. It is typical that most of the students themselves (unlike the less revolutionary workers) were not bothered about De Gaulle, except insofar as the real objective, society, was obscured by the purely political phenomenon of Gaullism. The popular movement was therefore either sub-political or anti-political. In the long run this does not diminish its historic importance or influence. In the short run it was fatal. As Touraine says, May 1968 is a less important event in the history of revolutions than the Paris Commune. It proved not that revolutions can succeed in Western countries today, but only that they can break out.

Several of the books about the May events here under review may be briefly dismissed. Seale and McConville, it has already been noted, provide a very good introduction for those who don’t know much about the affair. The French Student Revolt contains useful documentation, though more comprehensive material is available in French. Servan-Schreiber’s and Henri Lefebvre’s books have not much to do with the events of May, which they use chiefly as a peg for hanging the liberal-technocratic or Hegelian-Marxist observations which these authors would be likely to make anyway. Some of the books, however, deserve more attention.

L’Elysée en Péril is unique in treating the crisis entirely from the angle of the men in power, whether official or opposition. The author, a journalist of reticent but hardly left-wing views, has plainly done a lot of legwork and his description about what went on at the top will have to be taken seriously by historians. Unfortunately they will not know how seriously, because the book lacks precise source references. It suffers from the systematic clamming up of several crucial sources, including that of the General and the C.P., from a failure to mention several matters, especially about the army and the police, and from the certainly that a high proportion of the 160 persons interviewed by M. Alexandre (but how high? And which of them?) were busy rewriting their own, their friends’, patrons’, and enemies’ roles in the great scenario retrospectively but in ways impossible to determine. Still, the book contains important information, not least about the government-union negotiations, which the CGT was more anxious to start and conclude than the prime minister. Neither side, incidentally, was in a hurry or worried. Both were in touch informally throughout the strike.

Touraine’s book is in a class apart. The author is an industrial sociologist of Marxist provenance, the teacher of Daniel Cohn-Bendit at Nanterre, the original flashpoint of the student revolt; he was deeply involved in its early stages. His analysis reflects all this to some extent. Its value lies not so much in its originality—where so much has been written, most ideas have already been suggested and contested somewhere—as in the author’s lucidity and historical sense, his lack of illusions, his knowledge of labor movements, as well as the incidental contribution of his having first-hand experience. He has, for instance, written the best analysis of the general strike, a grossly under-reported and under-analyzed phenomenon when compared to the quantity of literature about the Latin Quarter. (We know practically nothing of what happened in all those plants and offices, which, after all, produced 10 million strikers, most of whom were out of contact with students and reporters.) For foreign readers he has the additional advantage of first-hand acquaintance with other parts of the world, notably the US and Latin America, which helps to correct the inborn provincialism of the French.

Touraine’s argument is elaborate and complex, but a few of the points may be noted. What is happening today is the “great mutation” from an older bourgeois to a new technocratic society, and this, as the May movement shows, creates conflict and dissidence not only at its margins but at its center. The dividing line of “class struggle” it reveals runs down the middle of the “middle classes,” between the “techno-bureaucrats” on one side and the “professionals” on the other. The latter, though in no sense obvious victims of oppression, represent in the modern technological economy something like the elite of skilled labor in an earlier industrial epoch, and for analogous reasons crystallize the new phase of class consciousness:

The main actor in the May movement was not the working class but the totality of those whom we may call the professionals…and among them the most active were those most independent of the great organisations for which, directly or indirectly, such people work: students, radio and television people, technicians in planning offices, research workers in both the private and public sector, teachers etc.

They, and not the old working class collectivities of miners, longshoremen, railroads, gave the general strike its specific character. Its core incidentally lay in the new industries: the Automotive-Electronic-Chemical complex.

According to Touraine, a new social movement, suited to the new economy, is emerging, but it is a curiously contradictory one. In one sense it is a primitive rebellion of men who depend on older experiences to cope with a new situation. It may produce a revival of old patterns of militancy or, among the new recruits to the social movement who have no such militant experience, something analogous to populist movements in underdeveloped countries, or more precisely to the labor movement of the early nineteenth century. Such a movement is important not for the fight it is now carrying on along old political lines, but for what it reveals of the future: for its vision rather than its necessarily feeble achievement. For the strength of that vision, the “utopian communism” which it created in 1968 as the young proletariat created it before 1848, depends upon its practical impotence. On the other hand this social movement also includes or implies an up-to-date kind of reformism, a force which may serve to modify rigid and obsolescent structures of society—the educational system, industrial relations, management, government. The future dilemmas of revolutionaries lie here.

Was this new social movement “revolutionary” in May—apart from its “revolutionary” formulation of a “counter-utopia” of libertarian communism to meet the “dominant utopia” of the academic sociologists and political scientists? In France, Touraine argues, the new movement produced a genuine revolutionary crisis, though one unlikely to achieve revolution, because, for historical reasons, the social struggle, politics, and a “cultural revolution” against all forms of manipulation and integration of individual behavior were combined. There can be no social movement today which does not combine these three elements, because of the “progressive disappearance of the separation between state and civil society.” But at the same time this makes the concentration of the struggle, and the development of effective devices for action, such as parties of the bolshevik type, increasingly difficult.

In the US, by contrast—perhaps because of the absence of state centralization or a tradition of proletarian revolution to focus it—there has been no such combination of forces. The phenomena of cultural revolt, which are symptomatic rather than operational, are the most visible. “While in France,” Touraine writes, “the social struggle was at the center of the movement and the cultural revolt was, one might almost say, a by-product of a crisis of social change, in the USA cultural revolt is central.” This is a symptom of weakness. As Touraine observes, at the end of World War I, Dada was a very minor phenomenon in the context of the Soviet revolution and its repercussions in other countries. When Dada and similar phenomena look large, it is because the larger things are not happening.

Touraine’s purpose is not so much to make judgments or prophesies—and insofar as he does so he will be criticized—as to establish that the May movement was neither an episode nor a simple continuation of older social movements. It demonstrated that “a new period in social history” is beginning or has begun, but also that the analysis of its character cannot be derived from the words of the revolutionaries of May themselves. He is probably right on both counts.

A special word needs to be said about Obsolete Communism by Daniel Cohn-Bendit (in collaboration with his brother). It will not become a classic of revolutionary theory or even a major source for the study of May 1968. But it is immensely lively, intelligent, and serious, the charming and modest work of a young man who plainly adores using his reason as much as confronting the twin horrors of capitalist society and Stalinist bureaucracy. He is the kind of revolutionary student whom any college teacher would love to have in his class, in spite of a marked tendency (noted in passing by his own admiring professor, Touraine) to make no clear distinction between thinking and talking. A lot of what he says will be familiar to readers of the very ably edited little magazines of French dissident Marxism and libertarian literature. The quotations from Marx do not always actually prove what Cohn-Bendit thinks they do. But in his combination of intellect, activism, and humor, he displays not only his own remarkable gifts, but much of what made May 1968 in the Latin Quarter such an enchanting and unforgettable experience.

For whatever its limitations and weaknesses, this remarkable outburst of popular liberation demonstrates one thing which gets lost among the political scientists and the strategists. Revolution is exhilarating. As Seale and McConville observe from the outside: “To live through a revolution is a delirious experience…. This throwing off of constraints, this sense of relief, was the authentic stamp of the revolution, the proof that the changes being wrought were really of revolutionary proportions…. In spite of the vexations of life, the strike, and the drying up of gasoline pumps, men will look back on that period and remember it with joy.”

This Issue

May 22, 1969