1968: Forty Years Later
REVOLUTION THAT SUCCEEDED AFTER IT FAILED
By Nikola Samardzic
In May 1968 France witnessed two revolts - the one by students and the
other by workers. Students failed to attract workers to join their demands for general,
public interests and radical reforms and achieve a social and economic utopia with their
support. However, thought its demands were not fulfilled the student revolt opened a new
chapter in the political history of France and expanded the borders of human rights and
freedoms. A revolution took place in the new values of the society it tried to destroy -
and which destroyed it in turn.
Student revolution strongly challenged the left and the right alike. Its
end marked the emergence of the era of Euro-communism, terrorism and global crises. The
1968 protests - including the one in Czechoslovakia above all - morally and ideologically
compromised the obsolete, old-men's conservativism on the one hand and the sterile
political rigidity on the other. Conservativism underwent liberalization and thus prepared
the terrain for its historical triumph in 1980s.
But the left - probably due to its long-term successful achievement of
economic freedoms that included human freedoms as a whole - remained more subjected to
general negation. In France, workers' refusal to show solidarity with students,
associations of the true nature of communism, as well as De Gaulle's final resignation in
the year that followed also boosted the left. The ideas of the left were suppressed for
the time being - after the Prague spring was chocked and Stalinist winter once again froze
Czechoslovakia and its prospects of liberation. Facing the catastrophic consequences of
collectivist tests such as Maoist Cultural Revolution also became most serious.
Euro-communism was pigeonholed for the next decade, while European terrorism became an
inspiration for the global political Islam.
Students in France revolted against the realities of the time. And that
time was almost ideal when compared with the years immediately after the World War II.
However, perception of the times had changed with the progress. People became less patient
and less ready to sustain social differences. Instead of equality implying a civil society
the democratization of which was in progress, the students demanded social equality. Their
demands also, to some extent, coincided with De Gaulle's aversion to Euro-Atlantic
integration. De Gaulle refused any closeness with the Anglo-Saxon world, while the
students with Anglo-Saxon capitalism. What also connected them was a general opposition to
the American foreign policy choking in the Vietnam War. The students' struggle for
freedoms, socialism and peace was restricted to the criticism of their own, Western world.
This opened the door to Western Marxism and its partial victory over the lost moral and
ideological reputation, and enabled France to safeguard its specific - almost mean -
relations with the Soviet Union.
The messages of the student movement of the 1960s were universal and
farfetched thanks to their meaningful demands the realization of which corresponded with
promotion of democratic standards and aspirations of the urban, middle-classes. In the
United States, students were supporting the movements for human rights and equality of
Afro-Americans and condemning the intervention in Vietnam. The French student movement was
specific for the attempt to join hand with workers and the demands related to the future
of French capitalism.
What triggered off the student revolt in the first place was the
situation at universities. Then it grew into solidarity with subjugated people and appeals
for social changes.
The reform of the university was the first achievement.
The two decades after the end of the World War II witnessed economic and
demographic growth unprecedented in history. Atrocities, suffering and destruction were
soon covered with layers of renewal and progress. By late 1960s the baby boom generation
that had the opportunity to profit from some attainments of the new era emerged at
universities. Among other things, that was a generation that emerged from large masses.
And it this sense it threatened to overshadow all the previous generations. However, like
them, it begun searching for its place under the sun and opening the space for a new
initiativeness. It had not to fight for voting rights. In the United States people elected
the first president born after the World War I. John F. Kennedy was by himself a symbol of
youth and freedoms. And his assassination coincided with the beginning of student protest
since it, in a way, contributed to enthronement of the earlier generation of political
conservatives. The question of change of generations was raised in France too. With its
decades-long experience - the terrible ones of the war and hard and challenging in the
post-war period - the "old guard" was resistant to everything - and particularly
so at the time of De Gaulle's regime standing for old ideas and obsolete needs.
New generations thought they were not adequately represented in
politics. They became visible thanks to the generation gap that clearly distinguished them
from pre-war generations. Baby boomers had not experienced the world depression,
totalitarian aggression, war atrocities, the post-war poverty and renewal, and lost of
their dearest. What made their stresses was the nuclear threat and challenges of consumer
The progress of technocratic ideology undermined the inner balance of
universities. Students' struggle against technocracy was the struggle against the society
of scientific management of economic and social affairs. Universities were meant to build
technocratic structures among other things. Universities were themselves small social
communities divided in educated and uneducated, sorts of knowledge factories. For French
students such division of universities symbolized the structure of the society as a whole,
as defined by technocratic ideology. Differences in knowledge coincided with differences
in privileges and offices. Professors were imagined technocrats, while students imagined
workers. Only, unlike workers, students could not define repression by the notions such as
poverty and exploitation. What they had in common was subordination. Students blamed
university bureaucracies for their subordination and searched for the same paradigm in the
society. Analogizing universities and the society they were disclosing the power
structure. Their fight against university hierarchy was meant to pass through a message to
the society and its hierarchies. Students refused to be isolated from the society and to
be "in the service of the ruling class's profit-making." They called for a
classless society and opposed technocratic application of knowledge on which the
predominant strata rested. For them, socialism was a solution to the contradictions
between knowledge and wealth, and their repressive use in developed societies.
Students' utopianism attracted the French Communist Party that tried to
pass on their dissatisfaction to workers. However, communists were not capable of any
significant contribution to the movement. In the long run, the sum and substance of
student protests was not political - it was more related to transformation of everyday
culture and life, and self-government for workers. Communists blamed students for
gauchism, vain leftism, and criticized their impulsiveness. Students reproached communists
of opportunism. However, the outcome of their dispute was mobilization was worker trade
Workers' movement helped students to break the traditional isolation of
anarchist, Trotskyst and Maoist sects. At the same time, communists did not grasp social
and political crises. Workers needed them less and less. French communists were more and
more needless offsprings of an obsolete state structure and, in global sense, a by-symbol
of cold war divisions.
The French Communist Party was totally preoccupied with election
strategy. Its goal was to form a leftist alliance that would win the election and create
conditions for "a progressive democracy as a major step towards socialism" - for
a communist monopoly instead of a civil. At that time French communists loyally supported
the Soviet Union. Their natural allies, socialists, had already distanced themselves from
them in every sense. Socialists advocated for the employed, for small businessmen and
farmers, and opposed Soviet communism. The Communist Party negated any dictatorial
pretension and insisted on its dedication to democracy. But it never criticized
non-existence of democracy in the Soviet Union and that in itself questioned its true
intentions. Students also disliked communists' proneness to centralism that would have
additionally concentrated the power of the state. Unlike communists calling for
nationalization, socialists were advocating separation of economy and state.
As students saw it, communists threatened to maintain the oppressive
state structure, while socialist big corporations and capitalism. The mainstream of the
student movement was warning that for communists and socialists the state was a goal
rather than a political enemy. Students wanted to eliminate technocracy from working
relations and wanted creative roles for workers rather than just a change of working
conditions. Their strategy included a general strike, independent workers' organizations
participating in the power structure and transition from capitalism to socialist in the
form that restricts the state's prerogatives but keeps away a new society from Stalinism
and loss of the existing rights and freedoms.
Student revolt stood for a crucial comeback of the idea of social
revolution that removes the state from the main stage and allows initiativeness of
"associated producers." Marcuse wrote about "the socialism of cooperation
and solidarity, in which men and women collectively determine their needs and objectives,
and their priorities."
Workers' movement by itself secured a predominant metaphor of social
transformation. Students' movement, limited by its very nature, badly needed that
metaphor. Students were appealing to workers to fight against the government's terror,
which was "in the very nature of the existing social order." Though it turned
out that it could hardly influence both the Communist Party and the biggest trade union,
Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), the second biggest federation
of trade unions, Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), backed the
strategy for structural reforms that was more leftist than the communists' platform. The
government drew back then. The mass strike clearly indicated people's dissatisfaction. The
Communist Party radicalized its demands by the end of May, called for De Gaulle's
resignation and establishment of "people's government." Many revolutionaries
turned out at Sorbonne and at barricades.
However, the ensuing differentiation between students and workers, and
among workers themselves, displayed all the complexity of the French society and announced
the post-industrial period that had been in air in late 1960s. More qualified workers of
the CFDT were more attracted by the idea of self-government. They were competent enough to
run factories. The CGT saw the CFDT demands for participation in management as a call for
collaboration with bourgeoisie. But the idea itself - at least in its more moderate,
reformist version - embedded the germ of students' revolutionary strategy.
Social structure did not allow clear definition of revolutionary strata
and their interests. Opposition to the establishment exploded among citizens themselves,
among teachers, journalists, writers, the people working in social services and other
public servants. Moreover, even mid-level and small-level managers manifested their
dissatisfaction. Not only students' and workers' revolutionary cores demanded changes.
This relativized the original motives for the revolt but made its consequences deeper and
more lasting. Developments changed the notion about the politically passive and socially
conformist middle class. The revolution also became bourgeoisie. Anyway attempts had been
made during May events to persuade the middle class that it was actually the working class
too - that they also make proletariat since mechanization of administrative and management
jobs had removed the barrier between them and workers. But that was not exactly true. The
middle class was not ready to identify itself with a part of the working class and, unlike
workers, put emphasis on social and political demands. Moreover, it manifested stronger
dissatisfaction than workers. It claimed that being in the midway of social hierarchy it
neither belonged to the ruling elites nor to the strata looking up to the egalitarian
As it also turned out, workers were rational. Trade union leaders were
not focused on a political revolution or a social revolt but on higher wages and better
working conditions. Once they got the expected financial and social concessions, workers
left students on their own. It was expected, anyway, that future elites would be recruited
from the ranks on former students. And that is what happened. Eventually, everyone who
could afford it went vacationing.
Outside France, terrible events took place that summer. In Prague,
Soviets demonstrated the theory of limited sovereignty and choked for long the high hopes
about lifting of the Iron Curtain and sending the Soviet tyranny to the past. In Mexico,
the army killed tens of students at the Liberty Square. The BAS party seized power in
Iraq. Racial conflicts broke out in Miami, Chicago and Little Rock. France tested a
hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. At the Moscow Red Square, seven students demonstrated
against the chocking of the Prague spring and were brutally punished by
institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals. In Karachi, terrorist killed 21 hostages
from a hijacked Pan Am airliner. In the meantime the French May revolution was turning
into a hedonistic nostalgia. And as the time went by the once students took power in
France and, probably, in the whole world.
In 1968 France seemed to renounce everything: the God, De Gaulle,
bureaucracy, apathy, the existing society, working relations, arts and, probably, itself.
That was a global revolt notwithstanding all French specificities. One of its outcomes was
that the system of freedoms surpassed those the revolution had invoked: the revolution
that had little to do with the realities but that created new realities, the revolution
that was short-lived at first glance only.
Studies of some events outstrip those very events. Under certain
circumstances their interpretations can fall under their organic composition, like some
meta-history of theirs. Even the most complex processes do not have any specific character
whatsoever by themselves. They get it in studies only. Even meta-histories are subject to
reconsideration. In this sense, 1968 still belongs not to its time as once and forever
captured in the past.