There is a temptation to perceive in this spirit of revolt echoes of May 1968.
It should come as no surprise that Emmanuel Macron appears to have had second thoughts about participating in events marking the semi-centennial of groundbreaking events in his nation. The French President finds the world stage a considerably less hostile environment than Paris.
His popularity has dwindled since last year’s electoral triumph. Rolling strikes by railway workers and others, in response to the clawing back of their entitlements, have triggered sporadic transport chaos. Students have been registering their opposition to retrogressive changes in university admission procedures. There have been follow-ups in the past week to the vast May Day protests. There is a temptation to perceive in this spirit of revolt echoes of May 1968.
There are key differences, though. The tumult of 50 years ago was broadly directed towards a progressive break with the past in a range of economic and sociocultural spheres. The aim today is mainly to preserve some of the gains achieved in the interim. Macron offered himself up as something of a “third-way” candidate, dedicated to finding a happy medium between ideas from both sides of the political spectrum. In keeping with the Blair-Clinton pattern, though, his proposed “reforms” tend to conform more or less exclusively with the neoliberal notions that became embedded in the DNA of right-wing and “centrist” Western politics in the 1980s-90s.
Back in 1968, there was understandably little or no sympathy for the Soviet model among Western European students agitating for change. There was considerable enthusiasm, though, for the Prague Spring, the movement in Czechoslovakia that demonstrated the possibility of “socialism with a human face”.
In that particular case, a movement for change spearheaded by students resonated within the ruling Communist Party, sparking a transformation that experimented with hitherto denied freedoms and toyed with the idea of pluralism. It did so without dispensing with the idea of socialism. It was not an example that the Kremlin apparatchiks and their acolytes across the rest of Eastern Europe could allow to stand. Months later, the Soviet tanks rolled in.
The events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia deserve further exploration, but for now suffice it to say that they resonated down the years and arguably spelt the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire.
Brutal state power was also brought to bear on the protesters in Paris, especially after the focal centre of the student uprising shifted from Nanterre on the northern outskirts of the city to Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter. The Night of the Barricades on May 10-11 turned the heart of the city of lights into a veritable war zone.
The revolt may not have been dubbed a revolution, though, but for an unexpected show of solidarity by the French working class, with massive strikes accompanied by factory occupations bringing much of urban France to a standstill. At the height of the crisis, Charles de Gaulle, who had been in power for almost 10 years, fled to a French base in Baden-Baden, West Germany, and discussed the possibility of a military-backed takeover with some of the Army’s most reactionary officers.
It never came to that. In 1848, on the eve of a European eruption, The Communist Manifesto envisaged the ruling classes trembling at the prospect of a proletarian revolution. In 1968, it was the French Communist Party (PCF) — which controlled the nation’s biggest union — that quivered at the idea of revolutionary change. The de Gaulle administration conceded most of the workers’ economistic demands, including vast pay increments, and the PCF thereafter used its clout to persuade them to return to work. Solidarity be damned.
In contrast to the Moscow-aligned PCF, the students represented a range of ideological allegiances, from Trotskyist and Maoist to anarchist and simply libertarian, and their broad aim could be summed up as liberation from the straitjacket of Gaullist conservatism in all spheres of life, from academia to sexual relations. Their revolt may have been adjudged a failure, but in the longer run its spirit permeated a plethora of social and political movements that sprang up in the 1970s.
But 1968 wasn’t a purely French or Czech phenomenon. Popular rebellions shook dictatorships in Greece, Spain, Brazil, Poland and Pakistan — leading, in the last case, to the overthrow of the “Asian de Gaulle” Ayub Khan. A massacre in Mexico City tarnished that year’s Olympics. Japan, too, was radically restive. The US was on edge, not least on account of the building occupations, and subsequent police violence, at New York’s Columbia University.
There are two threads running through these disparate revolts. One is that students were in the vanguard everywhere. The second is that Vietnam’s resistance to imperial aggression was a key motivator in many cases. The revolutionary upsurge was ruthlessly repressed, but it left its mark. In some ways, the world was never quite the same again.
By arrangement with Dawn