The two articles published in World Revolution 380 are part of a broader project aimed at re-examining the authentic legacy of the events of May-June 1968 in France. The article ‘Sinking into the economic crisis’ takes us back to a document written by the newly-formed group Révolution Internationale in 1969, a polemic against the Situationist thesis that the events were a response to a capitalist system that was “working well”. RI’s article insisted that the struggles of 68 were in fact the first reaction of the working class to the resurfacing of the world economic crisis – and our more recent article concludes that this argument has been amply confirmed over the past fifty years. This will be followed by further articles assessing the predictions we have made about the evolution of the class struggle since 1968, and looking at the development of the revolutionary movement over this period.
The second article in this issue, ‘Against the lies about May 68’, also written by our comrades in France, takes up some of the principal distortions and outright lies being spread about the meaning of May '68: that it was something specifically French, that it was essentially a student rebellion, that its main legacy is in contemporary identity politics, or that it was just something that happened a long time ago with no relevance for today.
A brief consideration of some recent attempts to deal with May 68 in the British media confirms that these are indeed the main mystifications about May 68. We are not talking about the lamentations of the right who bewail the permissive spirit of the 60s for destroying traditional values, or of liberals like Polly Toynbee who moaned that “out of all this revolution against ‘the system’ came a ‘me’ individualism that grew into neo-liberalism”. We are talking about articles and a TV programme that proclaim a certain sympathy with the mood of revolt that swept through France in 1968, display a level of sophistication in their knowledge of what happened and who was involved, but that, in the end, remain firmly inside the standpoint of bourgeois politics and sociology.
For example: both the BBC TV programme ‘Vive la Révolution’, presented by Joan Bakewell, and the Guardian article by John Harris, ‘May 1968: the revolution retains its magnetic allure’ do not simply repeat the banal idea that May 68 was a student revolt and little more. Both point out that it was the massive involvement of the working class which provoked a situation of national crisis. It’s true that Bakewell’s programme reinforces the idea of something specifically French because, while it deals with student and civil rights protests in other countries at the time, it says nothing at all about the powerful international wave of working class struggles which followed on from the movement in France. By contrast, the article by John Harris, which focuses more on cultural and historical works dealing with May 68 in retrospect, talks about the Italian workers’ struggles of 1969, the so-called ‘Hot Autumn’, which is the subject of a novel by Nanni Balestrini, We want everything, written in 1971 but only published in English in 2014. As the title suggests, and as Harris notes, the novel shows that the Italian Hot Autumn echoed the profound desire for social transformation that was such an important component of the French events. Also noteworthy is that both Bakewell and Harris deal with the Situationists, who, whatever their faults, did give voice to the renewed revolutionary hopes of that era. Harris in particular is of the view that the Situationist concept of the Spectacle – and the related slogan, “Are you consumers or participants” – retain their vitality in today’s world of obsessive consumerism, Facebook and fake news.
And yet we are also informed by Harris that the true heirs of the Situationists and other radicals can be found in the Momentum movement inside Corbyn’s Labour Party – an example of something the Situationists understood rather well: recuperation, the channelling of radicalism and revolt into the existing institutions of bourgeois society, just as the movement in 68 was derailed onto the trap of democratic elections, and so many of its most dynamic elements were sucked up into the political groups of capitalism’s extreme left.
It is also striking that Bakewell, Harris and also David Edgar in ‘The radical legacy of 1968 is under attack. We must defend it’ agree that the feminist movement – and identity-based politics in general – are a palpable, enduring legacy of the revolt of May 68. And of course, there is a grain of truth in this: as the article ‘Against the lies about May 68’ points out, every serious proletarian movement has indeed posed the question of the oppression of women and the necessity to overcome it through the unification of the class and the future unification of humanity. The same goes for all other forms of oppression - sexual, racial, national...and all these oppressions were indeed called into question in the animated debates that sprang up everywhere during the wave of working class struggles of the late 60s and early 70s. But the idea of a specific “women’s movement” independent of class is something different, since it acts not for the unification of the proletariat but for its internal fragmentation and its dissolution into cross-class alliances. In today’s period where the working class is experiencing profound difficulties in forging a sense of itself as a class, the growth of identity politics threatens to further exacerbate this tendency towards fragmentation and dissolution.
In this sense, the true legacy of 1968 is indeed less obvious and less spectacular: it can be found in the small milieu of authentically revolutionary, communist organisations, in various forums of discussion about the class struggle and the problem of revolution, but also, now and again, in much more massive movements which give rise to the same kind of searching, reflection and discussion that we saw in the occupied faculties and factories of May-June 68: movements like the 2006 students struggle in France, or the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011, which are not mere pale echoes of May 68, but which point the way to the revolution of the future. Amos 19/5/18