May 68: The student movement in France and the world, part 2

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In the first part of this article on the movement of May 68, we retraced its first stage: the mobilisation of the students. We showed that the agitation of the students in France, from 22 March 1968 up to the middle of May, was only an expression in this country of an international movement affecting almost all of the western countries, beginning in the United States where it opened up in 1964 at Berkeley University, California. We ended this article thus: "What characterises all of these movements is clear: above all, the rejection of the war in Vietnam. But whereas the Stalinist parties, allies of the Hanoi and Moscow regimes, would have logically been found at their head, as was the case with the anti-war movements around the Korean War in the early 1950s, it was nowhere the case here. On the contrary, these parties had practically no influence and, quite often, they were in complete opposition to these movements.

This is one of the characteristics of the student movements of the end of the 1960s, and it reveals their profound significance."

It is this significance that we are going to try to draw out now. And to do this, it is evidently necessary to recall the principal themes of the student mobilisation of this period.

Reasons to protest

As we've already noted, the opposition to the war undertaken by the United States in Vietnam was the most widespread and activating theme in all the western countries. It's certainly not by chance, evidently, that it's first of all in the United States that student revolt developed. American youth was confronted in a direct and immediate fashion by the question of war since it was it that was sent abroad to defend the ‘free world'. Tens of thousands of young Americans paid with their lives for the policies of their government, hundreds of thousands amongst them returned from Vietnam with wounds and handicaps, millions were marked for life because of the horror that they lived through. Outside of the horror that they found themselves in, and which is characteristic of all warfare, many among them were confronted with the question: what are we doing in Vietnam? Official speeches said that they were there to defend ‘democracy', the ‘free world' and ‘civilisation'. But the reality that they lived through contradicted these speeches in a flagrant fashion: the regime that they were charged with protecting, the one in Saigon, had nothing either ‘democratic' nor civilised about it: it was a dictatorial and particularly corrupt military regime. On the ground, American soldiers had difficulty understanding that they were defending ‘civilisation' when they were asked to act as barbarians, terrorising and massacring poor, unarmed peasants, women, children and the old included. But it wasn't just the soldiers there who felt revolted by the horrors of the war; it was also the case for a growing part of American youth. Not only were young men in fear of having to go to war and young women afraid of losing their companions; everyone became more and more informed by the returning ‘veterans' or simply through the television channels of the barbarity that the war represented[1]. The crying contradiction between government speeches on the ‘defence of democracy' and its actions in Vietnam fed a revolt against the authorities and the traditional values of the American bourgeoisie[2]. This revolt fed, in the first instance, the hippy movement, a pacifist and non-violent movement which raised the slogans ‘Flower Power' and ‘Make Love Not War'. It's probably not by chance if the first student movement of any scale took place at Berkeley University, in the suburbs of San Francisco which was the hippy Mecca. The themes, and above all the means, of this mobilisation still had some points in common with this movement: use of the non-violent ‘sit-in' in order to claim ‘Free Speech' for political propaganda within the University, notably for ‘civil rights' for blacks and to denounce the presence of the army on the campus and its efforts to enlist students. However, as in many other countries subsequently, and notably in France, 1968, the repression that was unleashed at Berkeley (800 arrests) constituted an important factor in the ‘radicalisation' of the movement. From 1967, with the foundation of the Youth International Party by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who moved away from non-violence, the movement of revolt was given a ‘revolutionary' perspective against capitalism. The new ‘heroes' of the movement were no longer Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, but figures such as Che Guevara (who Rubin had met in 1964 in Havana). The ideology of this movement was more confused. It bore anarchist ingredients (the cult of liberty, notably sexual liberty, as well as the copious consumption of drugs) but also stalinist ingredients (Cuba and Albania were considered as exemplary). The means of action borrowed greatly from the anarchists, such as derision and provocation. Thus one of the first actions of the Hoffman-Rubin axis was to throw phoney banknotes around in the New York stock exchange, provoking a rush to grab them. Similarly, at the Democratic Convention of summer 68, it presented a pig, Pigasus, as candidate for President of the United States[3] at the same time as preparing for a violent confrontation with the police.

To sum up the principal characteristics of the movement of revolt that agitated the United States during the 1960s, you could say that it presented itself as a protest against the war in Vietnam, against racial discrimination, against inequality between the sexes and against the traditional values of America.

The majority of its protagonists showed themselves to be the rebellious children of the bourgeoisie; this movement had no proletarian class character. It wasn't by chance that one of its ‘theoreticians', the professor of philosophy Herbert Marcuse, considered that the working class had been ‘integrated' and that the forces of revolution against capitalism were to be found among other sectors such as the black victims of discrimination, the peasants of the Third World or rebellious intellectuals.

In the majority of other western countries, the movements that agitated the student world during the 60s showed a strong resemblance to those of the United States: rejection of American intervention in Vietnam, revolt against authority in general and in the universities in particular, against traditional morals, notably sexual morals. That is one of the reasons why the stalinist parties, symbols of authoritarianism, had no echo within these revolts whereas they were party to the denunciation of American intervention in Vietnam against the forces armed by the Soviet bloc and called themselves ‘anti-capitalist'. It is true that the image of the USSR had been greatly tarnished by the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the portrait of Brezhnev wasn't a ‘pin-up'. The rebels of the 1960s preferred to display in their rooms posters of Ho Chi Minh (another old apparatchik, but more presentable and ‘heroic') and more still the romantic visage of Che Guevara (another Stalinist party member, but more ‘exotic') or Angela Davis (also a member of the US stalinist party, but who had the double advantage of being both black and a woman, a ‘good looker' like Che Guevara).

This form, both anti-Vietnam War and ‘libertarian', was especially prevalent in Germany. The main spokesman of the movement, Rudi Dutschke, came from the GDR, under Soviet tutelage where, as a very young person, he was opposed to the repression of the Hungarian Uprising. His ideological references were the ‘Young Marx' of the Frankfurt School (of which Marcuse was a part), and also The Situationist International (which included the group Subversive Aktion, which the SI's Berlin section was based on in 1962). The German ‘extra-parliamentary opposition' was, on the eve of May 1968 in France, the main point of reference for student rebellion in Europe.

Slogans on the walls

The themes and demands of the student movement that developed in France in 1968 were fundamentally the same. That said, during the course of the movement, references to the war in Vietnam were largely eclipsed by a whole series of slogans inspired by situationism and anarchism (even surrealism) that covered the walls ("The walls are the word").

The anarchist themes were evident in:

  • The passion for destruction is a creative joy (Bakunin)
  • It is forbidden to forbid
  • Freedom is the crime that constrains all crime
  • Elections - traps for idiots
  • Insolence is the new arm of the revolution

They were completed by those that called for the ‘sexual revolution':

  • Love one and all
  • Unbutton your brain as often as your fly
  • The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution. The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.

The Situationist perspective was found in:

  • Down with the consumer society
  • Down with commodity society
  • Abolish alienation
  • Never work
  • I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires
  • We don't want a world where the certainty of not dying of hunger is exchanged for the risk of dying of boredom
  • Boredom is counter-revolutionary
  • Live without dead time and play without hindrance
  • Be realistic, demand the impossible.

There was also the theme of the generation gap. It was widespread in the United States and Germany and included some quite odious forms:

  • Run comrade, the old world is behind you
  • The young make love, the old make obscene gestures.

Similarly in France May 68, where barricades were regularly thrown up:

  • Barricades close the street but open the way
  • The outcome of all thought is a brick in the mouth of the CRS
  • Under the pavement, the beach.

Finally, the great confusion that accompanied this period is well summed up by two slogans:

  • There is no revolutionary thought, only revolutionary actions
  • I have something to say, but I don't know what.

Class nature of the 60s student movements

These slogans, like the majority of others put forward in other countries, clearly indicate that the student movement of the 60s had no proletarian class nature, even if in several places (as in Italy and evidently in France) there was a will to establish a bridge with the struggles of the working class. This approach also manifested a certain condescension towards the workers, mixed with a fascination with these mythic beings, the blue collar proletarians, heroes of readers who had half digested some of the classics of marxism.

Fundamentally, the student movement of the 1960s was of a petty-bourgeois nature, one of its clearest aspects being the will to ‘change life immediately'.

The ‘revolutionary' radicalism of the avant-garde of this movement, including the cult of violence promoted by certain of its sectors, was also another illustration of its petty-bourgeois nature. In fact, the ‘revolutionary' preoccupations of the students of 1968 were incontestably sincere but were strongly marked by Third Worldism (Guevarism and Maoism), or else anti-fascism. It had a romantic vision of the revolution without the least idea of the real development of the movement of the working class that would lead it. In France, for the students who believed themselves ‘revolutionaries', the movement of May 68 was already The Revolution, and the barricades that went up day after day were presented as the inheritors of those of 1848 and of the Commune of 1871.

One of the components of the student movement of the 60s was the ‘conflict between generations', the very important cleavage between the new generation and those of its parents, which was the subject of all kinds of criticisms. In particular, given that this generation had worked hard to get out of its situation of poverty, even famine, resulting from the Second World War, it was reproached for only concerning itself with its material well being. From this came the success of fantasies about the ‘consumer society' and slogans such as "Never work!" Descended from a generation that had submitted to the full force of the counter-revolution, the youth of the 1960s reproached its parents for its conformism and its submission to the demands of capitalism. Reciprocally, many parents didn't understand and were loath to accept that their children despised the sacrifices that they had made in order to give them a better life than their own.

However, there existed a real economic element in the student revolt of the 60s. At this time, there was no real threat of unemployment or of problems of finding a job as is the case today. The principal concern that then affected student youth was that it would not be able to acquire the same social status as that of previous university graduates. In fact, the generation of 1968 was the first to be confronted, in a somewhat brutal manner, with the phenomenon of proletarianisation of the middle strata abundantly studied by sociologists at the time. This phenomenon had begun some years earlier, even before the open crisis had manifested itself, following a palpable increase in the number of university students. This increase came from the needs of the economy but also from the will of parents to provide their children with an economic situation superior to their own, and the possibility of doing so. It was, among other things, this ‘massification' of the student population which provoked a growing malaise with the authoritarian structures and practices inherited from a time when the universities were mainly frequented by the elite.

However, if the student movement that began in 1964 developed in a period of ‘prosperity' for capitalism, it was no longer the same from 1967 where the economic situation began to seriously degrade, strengthening the malaise of student youth. This is one of the reasons that allows us to understand why the movement of 1968 reached its heights. It is what allows us to explain why, in May 1968, the movement of the working class took the reins.

That is what we will look at in the next article. Fabienne 29 March 2008

[1] At the time of the Vietnam War, the American media was not so tightly controlled by the military authorities. This is an ‘error' that the American government corrected at the time of the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.


[2] Such a phenomenon wasn't seen following the Second World War: US soldiers had equally lived through hell, notably in the invasion of Europe in 1944. But their sacrifices were accepted by almost all of them and by the population, thanks to the authorities' exposure of the barbarity of the Nazi regime.


[3] At the beginning of the twentieth century, some French anarchists had presented an ass to the legislative elections.


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