The Ghosts of May

The Ghosts of May

Today the cobblestones of Paris’s Latin Quarter are covered with asphalt.


Today the cobblestones of Paris’s Latin Quarter are covered with asphalt. Twenty-five years on, the memory of the French uprising–the only one in the spectacular 1968 series stretching from New York to Tokyo to have moved beyond the campus, paralyzing the country and threatening the political system–is so distant that it requires a refresher for the new generation. What happened in that jolly month of May? For once, faced with the police, the students did not sign a petition. They fought back. There followed a week of confrontation, often bloody, cobblestones versus truncheons and tear gas grenades. The resistance of the students inspired the workers, who staged the biggest general strike in French history. As the factories stood idle, minds did not. People began to talk to one another. Surrealist scribblings flourished on the walls. For a brief spell everything seemed possible and a slogan even suggested that imagination might seize power.

But it didn’t and things, at least on their asphalted surface, went back to normal. Nostalgia no longer being what it used to be, it is not my purpose to bore the reader with the sentimental reminiscences of yet another lost generation. There are two connected reasons, however, to look back at the French May movement today. One is that the questions it raised (though never answered)–about the nature and purpose of growth, the deadly weight of a hierarchical society and of an unwithering state, about the inanity of frontiers–are more topical than ever in a depressed Europe with its millions of unemployed. The second reason is that the humiliating defeat of the French Socialist Party marks the close of a cycle, the end of an attempt to prove that the aspirations of 1968, admittedly watered down and integrated, could be realized by other, purely parliamentary, means.

In this strange period of transition, not just the French Socialists but the left in general throughout Western Europe must answer a question that has historical significance: Is it still able to tackle such problems, to offer the vision of an alternative society and thus serve as an example to the world, or has it become so Americanized that it must sever all organic links with the labor movement and drop altogether its socialist pretenses? Finally, a glance at the past twenty-five years of French history leads to another message for both sides of the Atlantic: Progressive social change will not materialize magically as a gift from heaven for dutiful voters. Without permanent popular pressure, a reformist president is bound to succumb to the forces of social inertia, whatever his original intentions.

Seeds of surrender. May ’68, in a sense, produced nothing. It raised problems without solving them, and the movement was defeated. It was just a breath of fresh air, an awakening. But because it challenged all the established institutions and denied that change must be marginal, it put the idea of a different society and, hence, of some form of revolution back on the agenda. Admittedly it did so in a country with a revolutionary tradition, yet one in which both Communists and Socialists–then nicknamed the gauche respectueuse, the respectful left–had chosen the purely parliamentary road to office. The events of May had upset their advance on that road. It was now vital to put the revolutionary steam back into the institutional kettle.

The imperative was particularly categorical for the Communists, who claimed a revolutionary vocation as their birthright. It did not really matter whether the upheaval in the streets had been potentially revolutionary or not. What was clear was that the C.P., instead of pushing the movement as far as it would go, acted as a brake. Now the Communists had to prove that they had an electoral solution. For this they needed an ally, the Socialists (and considering the weakness of today’s C.P., it is ironic that it then helped the Socialists to recover from the disarray into which they had fallen), but also a project, the Common Program, which the two parties signed in 1972. That program contained all the elements of future drama in a nutshell. It did not propose to abolish capitalism in France, but it was radical enough to hurt the interests of big business at home and abroad. As such, it stood a chance of being applied only if parliamentary action were backed by a mass movement, by a real mobilization of the people, and that prospect both parties ruled out, fearing another May.

When the Socialists were resurrected, at Epinay in 1971, they were at once taken over by a newcomer, François Mitterrand, who simultaneously discovered that he was a socialist. He was a quick learner, however, and was soon preaching against the “corrupting power of money” and promising “a break with capitalism.” Above all, he was a clever politician who postulated that the left could not win in France without the Communists and that its victory would be accepted only if the latter were the junior partner in the coalition. Add to this the assumption that in an alliance with a moderate program, the more moderate member tends to gain, and you get the secret of Mitterrand’s 1981 presidential victory–granted that it took him twenty-three years to achieve it.

To see the seeds of defeat in that victory one must also take into account an ideological factor, best described as Operation New Philosophers. Nineteen sixty-eight revealed the depth of discontent pent up below the glittering surface at a time when the European economy was still growing at an unprecedented pace. By the mid-seventies, with a structural economic crisis coming on top of it all, the threat to the system looked real. Hence it was crucial for the establishment to convince the young rebels that any attempt at collective action to alter society radically was bound to lead to catastrophe, to the gulag. The task was entrusted to the children, or rather bastards, of May, to Maoist turncoats who fulfilled it with zeal. At the intellectual level, their dish was tasteless: a rehash of The God That Failed, a good helping of Solzhenitsyn, a drop of von Hayek and a zest of Popper, the French providing no more than the salad dressing. But as an exercise in propaganda, backed by the full power of the media, it was quite effective.

And so to May 1981 and the election of a Socialist president at a time when pressure from below was at its lowest, contained as it had been by the very victors, and when the ideological ascendancy had shifted to the other side. The inevitable happened. The left in office began by keeping its pledges. It did so without mobilizing the people and so when capital, domestic and foreign, launched its counteroffensive, the left simply surrendered. From 1983 onward the Socialists followed in the footsteps of their capitalist predecessors. As to Mitterrand, he just changed parts. Originally he saw himself as a socialist reformer taking France beyond the Swedish model. Now he was to win his laurels as the man who kept France safe for capitalism, as the normalizer, the destroyer of dreams, of the belief that life can be changed by political action–in short, as the gravedigger of May. It is this chapter that is now coming to a contemptible close.

Utopian realism. In a world fantastically changed within a quarter of a century the old questions, curiously enough, have gained rather than lost in relevance. The striking novelty of the rebel sixties was the rejection of the so-called consumer society, the repudiation of the ruling religion of growth. Growth for whom? for what purpose? for whose profit? Those questions have now been dramatically extended to include our place and our survival in the universe. (Both the ecology movement and women’s liberation really developed in France after ’68.)

The extension goes even deeper. When the gospel of growth was first attacked, the gross national product was rising at an average annual rate of some 5 percent in a Western Europe enjoying almost full employment. Today such a pace is unthinkable and even if it were reached, the long lines of jobless would not vanish. After the economic crisis began some twenty years ago, we were assured that the cuts in manufacturing would be compensated for by the expansion of the service sector. Now that “labor saving” has inevitably spread to the latter, there is no easy way out. Our technological genius is matched by the coherent absurdity of our social organization. It has still to be proved whether our society can replace profitable arms manufacturing and heavy industry not with financial speculation but with the development of health, education and culture. To cut working hours, the labor measured by time, it is necessary to tackle the social division of that labor, the frontier between work and leisure, to invent new forms of democracy both on the shop floor and in the political arena for the nation at large, to address a host of other fundamental issues that were put on the agenda in the sixties and then cast aside as inconvenient.

The May rising in France was probably the first of this century that had nothing to do with the Soviet model (and its references to the “cultural revolution” had little to do with China). But the young students and workers had neither the time nor the desire to move from a vague vision to a concrete project. Today, after so many hopes dashed and promises broken, no political movement bent on long-term action to reshape society can be set into motion without such a project, without outlining where it is heading and how it intends to get there. Because the floor is littered with shredded blueprints, it is indispensable to spell out what such a project can and cannot be.

It cannot be a fully fledged model Imported from abroad or handed down from above; experience has confirmed the crucial function of democracy. Nor can it offer instant solutions–you seize the Winter Palace and everything inexorably follows. Even if this time the radical change were to start in one of the most advanced capitalist countries, say–stretching the imagination–in the United States, the transition would be long: the market, the state, the classes, the social division of labor, would not vanish overnight. Finally, it must be a project for our times, taking into account the deep transformation of the labor force, the extension of capitalism throughout the globe, the extraordinary spread in recent years of international finance. Yet, when all these reservations have been made, in order to advance, any movement must preserve throughout the journey the vision of a different world in which working people, the “associate producers,” and not the forces of the market, would shape things and one day become the masters of their own fate. And this is where the sixties come to the rescue. To an establishment that no longer argues that altering society is undesirable, because it is convinced it has proved that such change is impossible, the echo from the past brings the seemingly surrealist and utopian answer: “Be realistic; ask for the impossible.”

Not by ballot alone. In the heat of battle in May 1968 French students ran round the National Assembly with total contempt for the institution, and at the end of the month, in the hour of defeat, described elections as a trap for bloody fools (the term was actually more anatomical). Afterward, the politics of the French left was conducted as if nothing mattered except the ballot box. Both were exaggerations. Elections are affected by real conflicts in the country and vice versa. French history, a good laboratory for political scientists, provides an illustration of this link.

When the left won its first big victory in the popular front election of 1936, the workers occupied factories on the assumption, We have won; it’s ours. The capitalist establishment eagerly granted Léon Blum, the new Socialist Prime Minister, important concessions (a forty-hour week, two weeks’ holiday with pay), begging him to get the workers out of the factories and then back to work. During the general strike of 1968 government and employers were equally ready for concessions; no price is too high for political survival. But in 1981 the first presidential victory of the left was celebrated in a different fashion. Some 200,000 people flocked to the Bastille to dance and rejoice. Their most militant slogans, however, cursed the TV darlings of the previous regime. (The nearest translation would be “Down with Dan Rather and Barbara Walters!”) This not only reflected the inflated importance of the media in political life; it also illustrated the abdication of the left-wing electorate. The good-humored crowd at the Bastille was proclaiming, We have won; St. François do it for us!

Any president or prime minister attempting to change the status quo, however moderately, 1s bound to meet stiff and growing resistance from the system itself, which yields only when it has to. When a reforming president is not pushed consistently by his own side, he is bound to surrender sooner rather than later. The volte-face of Mitterrand and the Socialists was not just a betrayal. It was a case of a party totally unprepared for battle. Admittedly, the situation varies from country to country, and in France, unlike in the United States, the system itself was, at least in theory, at stake. The outcome, however, is always dependent on the balance of forces. This should be pondered by those in the European left who want to imitate Clinton and by the Americans who can draw on their own precedents from the New Deal. Even what Rosa Luxemburg called the “parliamentary battles between frogs and mice” do not take place in a vacuum.

Seen from the perspective of a quarter-century, an event tends to be stripped to its essentials. The most important feature of the French May was its link, however ambiguous, between students and workers. Beyond that, it projected a mood of defiance, the climax of a decade when young people suddenly ceased to take things for granted.

After the reactionary eighties we are going through a complicated period when the main actors have outplayed their parts yet can stay onstage, since there is nobody to push them off. How quickly Francis Fukuyama has vanished: History may have dangerous hiccups, but It certainly has not come to an end. The establishment, however, has succeeded in persuading the public that beyond the capitalist horizon there is nothing except the gulag, and it is this conviction that a revival of the old mood can destroy.

Hope was reborn for a time in May because a great number of French people rediscovered their belief in change beyond the confines of the system. More generally, the ’68ers argued, and not just in France, that if a society cannot provide social justice, equality, a decent life, you don’t just conclude, So much the worse for the people. If life is unbearable, you don’t try to fit in, you change society. We must now prepare for the advent of another generation bold and realistic enough to demand what It is the purpose of our professors, the privilege of our pundits and the paid duty of our propagandists to describe as impossible–namely, the vision of a radically different society.

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