May '68 and spontaneity

Luca Wright

May 1968, Paris. Photo: Bruno Barbey

May 1968, Paris. Photo: Bruno Barbey

On the 23rd of March 1968, 150 students occupied the administrative tower of Nanterre University in Paris and events soon escalated. On the 6th of May, there were regular battles between police and students in the Latin Quarter after 13 students were convicted for the occupation, and 422 people were arrested. On the 10th of May barricades were erected in the Latin Quarter and cars were burned in conflict with police, and 367 people were hospitalised. Unions called for a general strike on the 13th, and it is here that workers begin to join the students. The 15th of May saw the Theatre de l’Odéon occupied by 2,500 students and workers occupied a Renault factory, and on the 16th strikes began to spread across France. A censure motion from the left-wing parties was defeated in the National Assembly on the 22nd and on the 24th de Gaulle announced an election to be held the next month. In June, workers received raises and the minimum wage increased by 30%. But later in the month the election saw de Gaulle remain president with a larger mandate than when he was first elected.

In spite of its outcome, the May ‘68 protests are often viewed as passing a threshold in the history of leftist and socialist insurrections and – rather than looking to the October Revolution and other successful revolutions – students and intellectuals still view May ‘68 as they did during the protests: as an insurrection which would overturn the old order of society around them, where intellectuals and student organisations could be looked to to counter the retrogressive and repressive institutions that lagged behind class consciousness.

Kristin Ross writes that 'the rapid expansion of the general strike, both geographically and professionally, outstripped all frames of analysis', that May ’68 was ‘the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers' movement and the only "general" insurrection the overdeveloped world has known since World War II’, that included not only the industrial proletariat but workers in the service, culture, and communication industries. Maurice Brinton, who was in Paris during May ’68, wrote that it was the beginning of another epoch, one ‘in which people know that revolution is possible under the conditions of modern bureaucratic capitalism.’ These sentiments are found throughout literature and histories of May '68: the unique and singular existence of the insurrection. However, rather than the event being so singular that theory could not interpret it, the inverse is in fact true; May '68 was seen as singular and unprecedented through the poverty of its theory.

The driving line of the theory that grew out of May ‘68 was the antagonism between bureaucracy and spontaneity. Ross notes that there was a ‘convergence’ of political uprisings in the ‘60s between the national liberation movements of Cuba and Indochina (ignoring the Marxist-Leninist character of these movements), the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian struggles in the Europe and North America, and the ‘anti-bureaucratic struggles’ of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. May ’68 embodied these struggles, and, in coming to rebel against the existing order, this in turn meant rejecting the USSR. The ‘anti-bureaucratic’ uprisings of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, however, were far more complication than the students and intellectuals of May '68 reduction of them to ‘anti-bureaucratic’ struggles - yet this was only possible through the indeterminacy of their theory and by ignoring their essential class character. Nevertheless, anticipating critiques of the nature of May '68 and the ease with which students and intellectuals dismissed Lenin's writing and even the October Revolution itself, Ross writes that the events were too multiplicitous, too overwhelming, for an individual to have comprehended them. ‘To reduce a mass movement to the individual itineraries of a few so-called leaders, spokesmen or representatives ... is an old and, tried and true tactic for confiscation.' The spontaneity and energy of the movement was too intense for it to be led; a vanguard would have 'defanged' revolutionary consciousness, inhibiting the spontaneity of the protests, the strikes, and the revolution. Inevitably, then, historians of May '68 willingly fall into the same habits and pitfalls that the intellectuals and students found themselves in June, when universities granted concessions – and 'radical’ universities were even created – and unions turned against their workers. While Ross notes that 1968 saw protests across the US, Mexico, Germany, and Italy, in France there was a ‘synchronicity’ between the workers and intellectuals, but this synchronicity was the praising of spontaneity. Intellectuals and philosophers such as Debord, Derrida, and Deleuze even built philosophical methods around spontaneity as a principle. Brinton continues, ‘what can be said now is that if honestly carried out, such an analysis will compel many orthodox revolutionaries to discard a mass of outdated slogans and myths to reassess contemporary reality.’ Yet these indeterminate attempts to recapture daily life did not reflect the realities of workers’ lives and had little impact outside of the universities themselves.

May '68 then has come to represent the reinvigoration of spontaneity in Marxism that Lenin wrote against in What is to be Done? in 1902. This spontaneity hopes to allow the entirety of the working class to gain revolutionary consciousness and merely push over the already crumbling bourgeoisie, and the necessary organisation of communist parties become superfluous and even patronising. ’68 was supposed to be the death knell of this type of organisation, and Brinton writes that, ‘for Stalinism, too, a whole period is ending: the period during which Communist Parties in Western Europe could claim (admittedly with dwindling credibility) that they remained revolutionary organisations, but that revolutionary opportunities never really presented themselves.’ The opposite was in fact proven to be the case. Mitchell Abidor spoke to many people who were students in Paris at the time of May ’68, he recalls that ‘nobody could tell me what they were aiming for.’ He went on to say that students and intellectuals occupied schools and universities – and separately workers occupied factories – came up with imaginative slogans that are still popular today: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible‘, ‘Beneath the street, the beach!’, ‘In a society that has abolished all adventure, the only adventure left is to abolish society’, yet assemblies of students and workers weren’t formed and they were so separated that whenever a worker entered the Sorbonne students would chant with delight. Today we might read of the Situationists’ role in May ‘68, or the revolution in philosophy that saw the anti-Hegelian movements of Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze, but in rejecting the USSR, the Bolsheviks, and Lenin, intellectuals turned their backs on organisation itself.

Charges of ‘orthodox Marxism’ were revived against communists and communist parties, as they are today, but this was little more than the sublimation of bourgeois propaganda into philosophy itself. French philosophy took on the nascent criticism of the USSR as totalitarian and authoritarian and sought to purify Marx of whatever superficially resembled these false elements, and soon there was an image of Marx for whom the essential concepts of totality and dialectics – and even materialism – were alien. And it is in this image that we find the enduring appeal of May '68: it is a Marxism without content, that looks to failed revolutions and insurrections rather than actually existing communism, that it followed the bourgeois line against the USSR, and today the DPRK and Cuba. The students and intellectuals of May ‘68 thought ‘if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere’, and in championing the slogans and non-methods of May ’68 without having to broach the question of their own lack of organisation, socialists will only continue to hope that it is still possible, that capitalism will be soon be confronted by a mass of workers, that it will fight in the streets and overcome. Spontaneously, and without their contribution.  

Luca Wright writes on Marx and historical communist movements and from time to time helps out at Ebb Magazine.

Luca Wright