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NO 119-120

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Helsinki Charter No. 119-120

May - June 2008


1968: Forty Years Later


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 mentality.

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 unions.

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 utopia.

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.


NO 119-120

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