Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”. And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.
Nothing has happened
As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.
While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was added to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and cultural crisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.
This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.
May 68 was a decade long
Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such accounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.
The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more aggressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.
Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.
They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.
With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.
TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.
Everyone saw May 68
The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.
In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.
Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.
May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kick-started the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.
Everything happened in May 68
The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.
The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.
Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.
The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.
Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was re-imagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.