It’s Only a Beginning

It’s Only a Beginning

Nearly four years have elapsed since that merry month of May when France and the whole world were taken aback by a sudden and momentous upheaval.


Nearly four years have elapsed since that merry month of May when France and the whole world were taken aback by a sudden and momentous upheaval. Was it a historical aberration, an echo of the past, or was it a prelude, a portent of the future? After the storm, the landscape often looks unchanged. With asphalt covering the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter, with Pompidou presiding over a bourgeois society that has recovered its hierarchical order, the answer seems obvious. The timid, the skeptical, the spokesmen of the Establishment can once again preach with apparent confidence. Yet, there is a note of apprehension in their renewed arrogance.

The American public can now join in the argument over the meaning of the French May crisis with circumstantial evidence at its disposal. By far the best collection of documents–the labor of love of two historians, Alain Schnapp and Pierre Vidal-Naquet–is now available in an excellent English translation by Maria Jolas. The American version differs slightly from the French original. Some texts have been dropped. Professor Vidal-Naquet, on the other hand, has expanded his stimulating introduction, which not only explains specific French features (the anachronistic educational structure, the administrative centralism, the heritage of the struggle against the Algerian war) but also tries to link the French student revolt with similar movements from Berkeley or Columbia to Berlin, Rome and Warsaw.

Having studied thousands of pamphlets and programs, of Utopian manifestoes and pragmatic proposals for reform, the authors finally picked 232 texts as most significant or symptomatic. Each document is put in its context by an introduction and supplemented, when appropriate, by footnotes. The reader can thus concentrate on individual aspects without losing sight of the whole.

The authors take us back to Nanterre, where it all began–the campus in suburban Paris facing a shantytown–and to the now famous cycle of exemplary action-repression-solidarity. Texts such as "Why Sociologists?" show clearly that the inspirers of the Nanterre movement were consciously rejecting their prescribed role in society. Yet even they could not imagine what process they were setting in motion. The story gathers momentum on May 3, when the Sorbonne was taken over by the police, and students, instead of signing petitions, spontaneously struck back. There followed ten days that shook more than the French academic world. Each demonstration was bigger than the last, each clash with the police more dramatic. The opposition parties were as bewildered as the Gaullist government, which first used the club and then surrendered. The night of the barricades was the climax of this period, and the huge mass demonstration on May 13 was thought to be its epilogue.

Things worked out otherwise. The mass march proved instead to be a link in the chain, a link between the student rising and the biggest strike in French history. No wonder that many suddenly thought that "everything was possible." It wasn’t. The political parties, though, taken by surprise once again, reacted this time. The Communists in particular, while spreading the strike, did everything in their power to keep the struggle within the bounds of the existing social order. On May 27, when with the government’s blessing the trade union leaders and employers reached their compromise, they had apparently reached their goal. But the workers of Renault and then throughout France rejected the deal. Yet this was the last twist. General de Gaulle, up to then at a loss, finally realized that the Communists, alone strong enough to carry the movement further, would not budge. He now could launch his counteroffensive, knowing that they would choose electoral defeat rather than the risks of revolution. June saw the agony of the movement.

The outline is familiar. The great merit of this book is to fill it in with substance and color. Thus, the description of the student rising is followed by an analysis of the various "grouplets"– Trotskyist, Maoist, Anarchist–suddenly thrown onto the center of the stage. We then are given interesting information about the two original creations of the French May: the Nanterre 22nd of March Movement, which tried to rise above sects, and the action committees. aspiring to be the Soviets of the abortive revolution. Another section, significantly entitled "Words, Myths and Themes," recaptures the mood of that moment, with its rejection of authority, its mistrust of organized, established power, its disgust for the humdrum absurdity of everyday life. And throughout the book, as throughout that period, there is a curious mixture between the remembrance of things past and the search for the future.

Nowhere is this futurist side more striking than in the now famous Amnesty for Blinded Eyes, a manifesto one could read at the time on the walls. The influence of Marx is undeniable, but it is the prophetic Marx of parts of Das Kapital and especially the Grundrisse, the visionary explaining that "the theft of somebody else’s labor time, on which wealth now rests, appears a miserable base compared with the one that large-scale industry creates and develops itself." Only, with their impatience so typical of the period, the authors wanted it all at once–the vanishing of the state, the abolition of the social division of labor, the disappearance of differences between labor and leisure. Such impatience can well be described as Utopian; but the struggle was not a battle of yesteryear.

Obviously, this book tells only half the story, and does not pretend to do more than that. What distinguished the French student rising from similar revolts throughout the world was the response it got–ambiguous, confused and yet a response–from the workers. The sociologists, however, despite their big grants and tape recorders, have not done for the workers the equivalent of what the two historians have done here for the students and intellectuals. There is no history of the general strike and we have to rely on bits and pieces, on impressions, to guess what the striking workers thought when they suddenly rediscovered their power.

But within its self-appointed limits this book is most valuable. Venturing at times beyond the academic world, it tells us quite a lot about the strike itself. Above all, it shows most vividly what happens to people’s minds when the routine is broken, the social order disturbed, because the workers have laid down their tools, With its scholarly apparatus and bibliographical essay, it is an indispensable tool for the historian. But the book is more than that. It is a mine of information for the general reader and should stimulate passionate debates on subjects such as reform and revolution or spontaneity and organization. Indeed, it is to be hoped that a paperback edition will enable American radicals to study the book and not simply pick at it in the libraries.

"’May,’ of course, will not happen again," Professor Vidal-Naquet rightly concludes in the postface, though he equally rejects the idea that history will stand still. It is not too difficult to explain why the movement failed, was bound to fail, and is not ready yet for a successful upsurge. But there are lessons in failure too. The crisis revealed the fragility of the modern state, the power of the workers, the depth of discontent beneath the smug surface of our societies. Escorted by ghosts from the past, the May movement pointed to the future because it offered the glimpse of an alternative and put the problem of revolution back on the historical agenda of the Western world. And that is why spokesmen for the Establishment have lost some of their assurance. In recapturing the mood of May, the authors of this book echo for their benefit the contemptuous message of Rosa Luxemburg:


You stupid lackeys! Your "order" is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once more and announce to your horror amid the brass of trumpets: "I was, I am, I always will be!"


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