1968 Movement (Europe)
From Hobson's Choice
This post is under construction
The "Events of May" (1968) refers to a social trend that took possession of much of Western Europe around the time of the Counterculture Movement in the USA. While the Counterculture Movement was largely a reaction to the nationalism, incipient militarism, and economic management of the predominant cultural milieu, its European equivalent was in some respect a "rediscovery" of nationalism.
During the period 1945-1952, Europe was recovering from the political and economic traumas of World War II. Some nations, such as West Germany, were not even formally organized as nations during this time. Violence and despair were widespread, and many Europeans naturally developed the view that their continent had been permanently superseded by the United States. In some cases, this took the form of imitation; in other cases, it took the form of extraordinary expectations; in other cases, it took the form of irrepressible resentment and open loathing. During the period following the formation of NATO, the conflict between European and US policy interests became harder and harder to ignore.
In the mid-1960's, all Europe was enjoying a period of impressive growth. The imperial entanglements were mostly cut, and a wave of new freedom and opportunity had suffused the region. France was moving away from the destructive acrimony of the Algerian War to a new era of intense internal improvement. Germany was moving from recovery to the achievement of unprecedented levels of prosperity. And then, in January, a young man named Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his friends crashed the dedication of a swimming pool by the Education Minister, and sought to humiliate him.
It was a sudden impulse... (a)n hour before we didn’t even know he was coming. He gave me a light. then I said to him, ‘Monsieur le Ministre, you’ve published a report on youth problems which is ridiculous. You don’t mention any of the real problems- for instance there’ not a single word on sexuality in it. What about that’? ‘Young man,’ he answered, ‘if you’ve got problems about that, may I suggest that you take a dip in the swimming pool?’ That reminded me of the Nazis’ emphasis on sport and cleanliness, so I gave a mocking Nazi salute.
Fraser, p. 149, via Christian W. Erickson
In fact, the theme of humiliation of authority recurred endlessly in the crisis that followed. Mr. Cohn-Bendit, a young man with a gift for seizing the moment, was taken into custody and spent the "revolution" there. His movement attempted to take control of the newly created, over-crowded University of Nanterre, while other students took over the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter of Paris. At all times, the strategy of the students was to humiliate the authorities; and the strategy of the authorities was to avoid being humiliated.
University conditions at the time were a definite problem:
Yet, the university was experiencing some severe growing pains. Before World War II France had about 60,000 students out of a population of 42 million. By 1958 the figure almost tripled to 175,000, and in 1968, at the time of the “May explosion” there were 500,000 students registered at universities, and the population was 50 million. (Singer, 44-45) Within the time span of one generation, the proportion of the population who attended universities went from about 1 person out of seven hundred, to one in one hundred. The "tiny elite" was a growing minority, and the university was not only challenged by the multitude of bodies to accommodate, but the additional roles it was required to play in modern times. Economic advancement was underway and the modern capitalist economy was dependent upon technological developments and scientific research to increase productivity. This increased productivity often put people out of work as machine replaced man, and there was a need to continue to add profitable jobs. Capitalism was challenged, as a part of the “system,” to perpetuate itself. For the sake of economic development, independent thought and individual initiative are essential. Yet it is also breeding ground for a critical spirit. (Singer, 42-43) Again, as in the medieval times, there appeared significant consequences to the social fabric and the political status quo if the students rebelled. Thus the university needed to be more diverse, more flexible, and more stratified than before. (Singer, 46) It was this that got thrown to the forefront as students rebelled in May 1968.While university strikes had been and would in the future be a regular feature in Paris, the events of May '68 were a breaking point for the system.
Nina Lois Turtledove"Ancient Controversy Resurrected"
Nevertheless, the proudest and most self-confident political regime of Europe was brought to within a half-inch of collapse. There was a day when almost certainly the majority of De Gaulle's cabinet, and quite possibly the general himself, expected defeat. This was achieved by a grass-roots popular movement, without the help of anyone within the power structure. And it was the students who initiated, inspired, and at crucial moments actually represented that movement.
"Birthday Party," by E. J. Hobsbawm
For Prof. Hobsbawn, writing 18 months later (i.e., in 1969) this was in itself amazing. Of course, if a bureaucracy supposes its prestige to be boundless, and the one thing it dreads is any tarnish on that prestige, then humiliation is an exceptionally powerful weapon. But why did such a huge cohort of the French population either take to the streets as student marchers, or as workers? Some of my sources (e.g., Wikipedia, Trotskyist historians) believe as many as ten million French workers went on strike at some point or another of 1968.
There were two major events that converged in France to make the spring and summer permanently alter French, then European, society:
- The massively-increased student body, which was crammed into new, badly-designed campuses with inadequate housing; the students were subject to extensive constraints on their personal behavior, spying, and exclusion from political activism. In early '68, students in Paris seized their campuses and occupied them, then mobilized to defend against a reconquest of the campus by the police.
- The major industrial employers, such as Citroën, had implemented a policy of employing immigrants at half the going wage; large cohorts of foreigners from Portugal, Spain, Yugoslavia and North Africa were employed precisely because their job prospects outside of the factory were poor. The primary labor union in France was, and remains, la Confédération générale du travail (CGT), which was at the time linked officially to the Communist Party of France (itself, very closely tied to the USSR and unusually loyal to it). The CGT was, however, rather bureaucratized and closely tied to the administration of the firms whose employers it was supposed to represent. Moreover, the CGT had a strong pragmatic interest in the two-tiered wage system.  The great majority of its rank and file membership were French citizens who enjoyed the upper-tier wage premium, and regarded the segmented labor market as fundamental to their way of life.
In 1968, matters came to a head when younger members of the CGT and foreign (ergo, non-union) workers called for the occupation of the Citroën factories around Paris; other factories soon followed. The young radicals successfully mobilized a huge segment of the foreign workers, suddenly altering the mathematical dynamics of the CGT. The two events were related: in both cases, the catalyzing force were students interacting with foreign workers, either in Nanterre (a working-class suburb of Paris) or in the Latin Quarter (then, a scruffy district on the Left Bank of the Seine). Students had long been forming organizations to confront the administrations of the new schools, mainly over efforts to police their political activity (echoes of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California); moreover, there was resentment over the obsession with regimenting personal behavior (the academic principle of in loco parentis, in which most students were then technically minors, and the school their legal guardian).
Students had been active in forming workers committees that defied the structure of the CGT/PCF; influenced by huge tendencies of Trotskyists, who were outraged by the CGT/PCF's accommodationist stance towards the bourgeois democracy of the 5th Republic, the students formed Action Committees (CA's) that lacked a president, quorum, or principle of membership; anyone who showed up was a member in good standing. The CA's were very successful at defying the CGT's support of the segmented labor market, a handicap imposed on the CGT by the obvious and compelling short-term interests of its voting members. The CA's, by bypassing the formal CGT bureaucracy, successfully broke the ability of the employers to segment the labor force; suddenly, the entire labor force was promised equal representation.
Citroën's plants were crucial because they employed so many foreign workers; 60% of the Paris labor force at Citroën was foreign, and hence, not unionized. This huge class of non-organized labor had crippled the French labor movement, and was understandably unsympathetic to the French workers whose strikes they were being used to break: heretofore the CGT had refused to reach out to them. Now they were suddenly crossing the lines and joining ranks with the French nationals in the occupation of the Citroën factories. How important the CA's were in achieving this is a fiercely controversial question; the CGT/PCF were thoroughly "Muscovite," in contrast to the Maoist, Anarchist, Trotskyist, and radical CA's, and later they would be bitter rivals over the disposal of this newfound power.
With the occupation of the Citroën facilities, a tipping point was reached in the CGT and the other labor federations of France. The CGT et al. called a general strike; using a tasteless munitions allegory, it was as if before the unions had to work with black powder, and now suddenly had a gigantic thermonuclear arsenal. Potential strikebreakers were now physically and emotionally unavailable to employers, and the police were unable to intervene against so many labor/student outbreaks at the same time.
Two additional factors contributed to the revolutionary conflagration: one was the desperate determination of the French leadership to look like statesmen. Many of them had been members of the maquis, including (obviously) President de Gaulle himself. As such, they had sense of comradeship with the CGT's "Muscovite" leadership, who had distinguished themselves massively in resisting the Nazis and bearing the brunt of their brutality. The CGT was politically adversarial to the ruling RPR and its affiliated parties, but in matters such as the occupations, professional courtesy came into play. The Fifth Republic's bureaucracy knew the CGT was not determined to liquidate them; it was those callow students! De Gaulle's MO in this crisis could be likened unto the elderly, distinguished college professor who responds to a student's challenge of his authority by leaving the room in a huff. He hopes the student will be mortified and his classmates outraged at his temerity; he hopes his stern refusal to engage in debate, which is beneath him, will preserve his dignity. De Gaulle's application of this strategy had worked when he was challenged by people of high standing; such people knew their own dignity in French society came from the same source as de Gaulle's. Now he was challenged by men and women who were unmoved by his posture of affronted dignity; they just thought he was an arrogant dilettante.
(At the height of the general strike, de Gaulle actually disappeared. He was at an air force base in Baden-Baden, West Germany, conferring with the military. He was contemplating bringing in the French military to restore order—and resigning.)
Aftermath of Colonialism
The other factor was the political transformation of France during the Algerian War. During that time, French society was polarized into two factions. One faction, the "Redemptive Faction" (my term) believed France's revolutionary traditions and progressive civil order made it the nation's duty and right to retain Algeria as an integral part of the nation. Quitting Algeria, in effect, would be an act of squalid capitulation to thugs and gangsters. The adversary in Algeria, the FLN, was regarded as puritanical and socially reactionary, and in any case, was waging warfare by bombings and fratricide. French society, through its passion of Nazi occupation and resistance, had been "redeemed" as a historical actor, and hence could legitimately occupy Algeria. This is why the PCF, for example, supported the government in Algeria.
The second faction was that of the "Second Thought" (my term); this faction believed that the consequences of intransigence were too great. Either it was isolating France, or making its state too subservient to military heroes, or the political tension in French society was too great, or... or it was literally betraying labor to capital. Workers were barred from challenging capitalism, youth were being regimented, and the moral contradictions of occupation were corrupting French democracy. The "2nd thought" was counterbalanced and checkmated by appeals to national pride, but an increasing proportion of French citizens wanted to identify with revolutionaries everywhere. Like water behind a dam, the "redemptive faction's" increasing demands on the French citizen's "patriotism" increased the emotional appeal of the "2nd thought."
When the 5th Republic recognized Algerian independence (1962), the dam was gone. Anti-colonialism as an emotional force had been built up but was no longer opposed by appeals to French national pride. French radicals could be as hostile to the idea of imperialism as they liked, and still be as patriotic as de Gaulle himself. I believe this is why opposition to US participation in the Vietnamese Civil War was so explosive; for many younger French, the opposing force of nationalism now had reversed its direction and favored the already-gigantic "2nd thought." De Gaulle himself had made US enterprise in Europe the new bette noire; the flow of US capital into the continent that had accelerated its reconstruction was now perceived as a sort of crass army of occupation. The populist resentment of foreign commercial encroachment had erupted violently in the past; in January '68 the first salvo of the anti-establishment rebels was to bomb the windows of the Paris offices of American Express, TWA, and Citibank.  In this, at least, the May revolutionaries were of one mind with de Gaulle himself.
The Vietnam War was in fact the perfect thing to protest, except for the detail that the French government was already opposed to it and already had withdrawn from the joint command of NATO. It allowed the French to express their antiwar sentiments against somebody elses' war. It allowed economic nationalism to merge with leftism (since the NVA was Communist), and with radicalism (since this was an imperialist war). It also appealed to the natural love of cosmopolitan interests that suffuses the young. It united the revolution in music, art, and fashion with visions of an entirely new social order.
This movement had echoes in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and the UK. The radical youth of Argentina, Greece, Spain, and Mexico were stimulated by different dynamics, since those countries were not affluent or democratic, but the participants were privileged. That they were privileged must not be construed to discredit what they did; but it is true that, as members of a falangist society, they were effectively launching a "youth strike" in which the cohort of youth required to fill the slots of managers and officers was so small (relative to the total population) it could hope to pressure the elites by rebelling.
The events of May '68 were wound down by the multiplication of factions and the disintegration of solidarity. The CGT has born a torrent of abuse for refusing to brook an overthrow of capitalism; it was able to regain control of the occupied factories and replace the demands for revolution with demands for higher wages. In this, it was merely obeying the preferences of its members. The Parisians turned against the student radicals when life became intolerably inconvenient. There was never much revolutionary ardor in Germany or the Benelux states, and Italy was still in recovery mode. A final blow came with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; although it was the accommodationist CGT/PCF that sided with Moscow, and not the students, the obloquy of Communism tarred them also.
The effect, however, was to permanently mold European politics. The revolutionaries had dabbled in a left rebellion against their country's bourgeois AND Communist establishments; the revolutionaries grew up to take over both. They adopted valuable lessons about organization and the limits of diffused power.
- ↑ Much of my information comes from an utterly fascinating site, "Workers Occupy Their Factories," by Fredy Perlman. This was really the most illuminating single site I found. Roger Gregoire & Fredy Perlman put together a simple and yet very informative site educating visitors about the events of May '68 that had single-"handedly" altered my views about the entire event. Sadly, Mr. Gregoire and Mr. Perlman had a bizarre rupture when the former joined the Situationist International, an artistic movement of great influence in Europe during the 1960's. Gregoire was compelled to denounce his former activities as a Marxist revolutionary, and wrote a long letter to Perlman upbraiding him for same (in order to prove he was eligible for membership in the SI). This rather appalling practice disgusted Perlman; it also was pointless, since the SI disbanded in '72.
The two-tiered wage system common in industrial unions is an unfortunate concession to the economic interests of individual members; it is extremely difficult to escape. From the point of view of organizers, it allows the union the powers of a large cohesive bargaining entity, but also awards it power over members and non-members. Ideally, the union would insist that all workers be accorded the same rights and duties. However, if the labor market is already segmented, or is segmented by the introduction of a new cohort of workers, then the immediate interests of the senior membership is to preserve this segmentation as long as possible. The reason is, if the wages were made equal regardless of segment, then the upper tier members would lose their premium to the lower tier. As long as the top tiers exist, the management can apply pressure on the upper tier by increasing the number of jobs for lower tier workers by technical substitution (I am assuming the upper tier monopolizes certain job codes). For this reason, far-sighted unions would logically seek to remove the segment so this wedge will not exist in the future. However, since the downward pressures on wages for the upper-tier are felt at the margins (i.e., with hirings and firings), the body of upper-tier members are unlikely to favor a policy of equalization.
- ↑ 2 The nationalistic equation of foreign enterprise as a sort of alien rapist is a universal theme in literature. Runaway Horses (Mishima Yukio), a novel set in pre-1936 Japan, describes the determination of a young hypernationalist youth to destroy the pollution of capitalism in Japan by a campaign of assassinations. The hero regards capitalists as betrayers of Japan's glorious imperial mission, because, inter alia, they strive to appease foreign investors. As events conspire to thwart the hero's planned bloodbath, he abandons unachievable goals, until at last he is forced to focus on assassinating one "enemy" of the Emperor: a merchant banker.
Biographies of de Gaulle that I have read mention his extreme hawkishness when out of power (1946-1958), his disregard of utilitarian principles in favor of the irrational, and his utter dread of foreign capital.
- Christian W. Erickson, Shockwave series
- Worker-Student Action Committees," by Roger Gregoire & Fredy Perlman;
- Theodore Kolokolnikov, "Interpretations of May 1968: the New Left"
- Media68, esp. "France";
- "A Chronology of 'May '68',"Metropole Paris;
- Situationist Online Archives, esp. "Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere";
James R MacLean (16:39, 8 January 2008 (PST))