The Ironic Legacy of France’s Failed Revolution

In offering us a stimulating analysis of May 1968 in France, Daniel Mahoney engages with a grand and varied tradition that rejects the common tendency to romanticize “revolutions,” real or aborted. His Liberty Forum essay refers us to so sundry a lot as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Raymond Aron, Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, and the disillusioned erstwhile enthusiasts Alain Besançon and Bernard Henri-Lévy. He recognizes that those actors who participated most influentially in “the events” were not of the same creed, but diversely Trotskyites, Maoists, aficionados of Che, and anarchists. He is at one with most of his interlocutors in his belief that how one understands a real or would-be revolution contributes to its ongoing consequences. In Mahoney’s view, “The party of order won the immediate victory, but the party of subversion/emancipation came to shape the mores of a transformed European order.”

May 1968 imprinted itself on many exhilarated sensibilities, and on the sensibilities of those whom they taught. Many who lived through it had a taste of revolutionary experience, cultural and political, and it changed their sense of possibility. According to some postmodernists, when we think that we “are” this or that, what we are actually doing is “performing” this or that, from some historically and culturally constructed set of scripts. If ever this concept were useful, it would be in the context of understanding “the events” of May 1968, when a substantial number of students, teachers, artists, and militants performed the revolutionary script that made them feel a kinship with the actors of 1789, 1793, 1830, 1848, and 1871. There were barricades behind which one clashed with police. Authority trembled. What a thrill to be Marianne, icon of Liberty Leading the People, with banners (or in their case posters) flying. It was the headiest of all such scripts.

Beware of Appearances

Some cautions, however. I lived in Paris (doing graduate research) in 1966 and 1967. My French friends were astonished by what was occurring in America in those years. There had been Berkeley, Columbia, and, in my year in Paris, Harvard exploded. My French circle found such things curious, even as they took the antiwar and civil rights movements in the United States seriously. They laughed, however, at the theater of undergraduates rioting at prestigious campuses. When I returned in the summer of 1969, now an assistant professor, almost all of those friends now shared with me le frisson and l’excitation of having lived through “the events” of the previous May. Those were the two words I heard the most. It was the camaraderie, the intense experience, the momentary high that had stayed with them, but it was unaccompanied by any urge to recreate such an event. What we precisely do not know—though it would be critical for our comprehension of May ’68—is how many people in the streets of Paris or sitting in mass meetings in university halls were just there for the generational adventure, and how many came or left with a radical political or cultural agenda.

I was a careful observer of sit-ins and building takeovers at my own University of Pennsylvania, and I interacted with large numbers of students in a college house that I cofounded, talking about the world. The seeming “student revolt” in America was no such thing. A small number of self-aware activists used specific issues to draw in a much larger number of students who had few deep political commitments. In the crucible of all-night plenary sessions in occupied buildings, however, the insiders worked their alchemy upon the far, far larger number. Votes at 9 p.m. to place more students on university decision-making committees became, by 2 a.m., votes to dismantle American capitalism in which almost all of them had wanted to prosper only a few hours before. By the next day, only a few of that larger number meant it, though they hid that from the zealots as best they could. It was not the skeptical, bemused, or curious who set the tone, let alone the many who went for the free pot. As in France, a goodly number of those who were truly absorbed by the politics and cultural politics went into academic life or into journalism, where they would later wield an influence far beyond their actual numbers.

At Sciences Po, in Paris, in May 1968, as its website currently relates (my translation):

If Sciences Po was not the spearhead of the “student revolution,” the venerable institution still was challenged [by it] and faced many vicissitudes of all kinds: the refusal to take exams changing into a general strike, the meetings [long and without votes] following the [strikers’] General Assembly [with votes], the banners covering the official notices, the invasion of the premises culminating in occupation . . . In red Sciences Po, renamed the Lenin Institute, in the Che Guevara hall and the Rosa Luxembourg amphitheater, the “revolution” was—for a brief moment—on the march.

The main result of all this was that in January 1969, new statutes of the school granted students seats on the board of directors and on joint committees. That was not much to concede to the likes of a Lenin, a Che, or a Rosa Luxembourg.

As Mahoney rightly argues, of course, the significant consequences of whatever changed in 1968 were less political in any immediate sense than they were cultural and attitudinal. Indeed, the spirit of May ’68 expressed its rejection of bourgeois life and values in a slogan ubiquitous at that time: “Métro, boulot, dodo.” This slogan (so contemptuous in its childlike rhyme and slang) means subway (that is, commuting to one’s job), work, sleep. That was the dreariness and human destitution of our condition under liberal capitalism. The phrase was derived from a line in a 1951 poem by Pierre Béarn, “Couleurs d’Usine.” Béarn, perhaps describing his father’s life in a factory, ended his poem this way (translation mine):

Au déboulé garçon pointe ton numéro

Pour gagner ainsi le salaire

D’un morne jour utilitaire

Métro, boulot, bistro, mégots, dodo, zéro

(Rush in boy, punch your time card

In order to earn the salary

Of a dismal utilitarian day

Metro, work, bistro, cigarette butts, sleep, zero.)

Mahoney acknowledges that what he terms the antinomian rejection of vital conventions and restrictions, and of realism itself, certainly preceded May 1968, and contributed to it, but that is immeasurably too little to grant. In the English-speaking world, the works of Paul Goodman, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, A.S. Neill, Norman O. Brown, Theodore Adorno, and a legion of other authors arguing for liberation from their equivalents of “Métro, boulot, dodo” were being gobbled up by the educated children of the postwar baby boom. In France, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu, among almost innumerable other critics of the world in which students found themselves, had been proclaiming to great acclaim the need to break down norms and set us all free. For no small number of students, they were the inspirational superstars.

Such critiques were not new, of course. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the proliferation of critics of bourgeois order, of the Enlightenment, of Christianity, of liberal democracy, many of them canonical authors by the time of “the events.” The century-long tradition of Marxism was deep and strong. The anger, boredom, and discontent of students and professors were in full bloom by “the Sixties,” across Europe and North America, and regnant social critics gave ideational content to that anger, boredom, and discontent. The culture already had changed.

Revolt and Defeat

What made the student revolt in Paris so powerful and symbolic was its context. Disputes between students and the authorities at Paris X Nanterre, as it was then called (now the Université Paris-Nanterre), had led to a closure of the university. Student demands spread and became national, were met by refusals, and student protests were met by police, which led to an explosion of student demonstrations, met by force, which led to barricades and chaos and the student occupation of universities across France.

The escalation was rapid and intense. These dramatic scenes were followed by a widespread wave of working-class strikes and occupations of factories, some wildcat and some organized, that paralyzed much of France. This spread to the factories radicalized, if even for a short stretch, growing numbers of workers and occupations. As participating students became ever more radicalized in their expressed alienation from Gaullist France, capitalism, and the civil order, they believed that they had realized one of the deepest dreams of the revolutionary French tradition: the general strike. In their eyes, this was no mere student revolt. Students and workers would say a definitive “No,” and the system would crumble. The disillusionment when that did not occur was as powerful and influential as any radical legacy in a France whose intellectual milieux had been already radical.

The political consequence of “the events”—France’s rejection of revolutionary students and of the Left—was not merely the defeat of the soixante-huitards but also a very deep and influential disillusionment among those who believed that they were ushering in a new age. The popular student slogan of May 1968—“Take your dreams for realities”— suddenly rang very hollow when the realities revealed themselves. Those realities were profound. Previously, in the 1962 legislative elections in France, the Gaullists had lost 27 seats, the Communist Party had added 41 seats, and the Socialists had added 18 seats. In the legislative elections of 1967, the Gaullists had lost another 16 seats, and the parties of the Left had gained another 42. The Left seemed certain to take control of the Assembléé législative in the next election.

Then, at the height of a crisis that he seemed incapable of controlling, de Gaulle dissolved the assembly and called for new elections. In those elections, at the end of June 1968, a new Gaullist coalition, the Union for the Defense of the Republic, not only did not lose power but increased its number of deputies by 119, now holding 60 percent of the seats in the assembly. The parties of the Left lost 102 of their deputies. The harbingers of that landslide, perhaps, were two demonstrations in Paris at the end of May 1968 itself. On May 30, 1968, the communist-dominated Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) labor union organized a massive march in Paris, with some 450,000 demonstrators chanting “Adieu, de Gaulle.” Later that day, President de Gaulle announced both the dissolution of the Assembléé legislative and his refusal to resign. Some 800,000 citizens of Paris took to the streets in an extraordinary, calm, and dramatic march in support of him, many carrying flags of France.

Significantly for the future of West European communism (at the height of the Cold War), the Communist Party and its CGT union saw in the May crisis and a weakened government the opportunity to secure substantial workplace gains. They broke with the “cultural” revolution and negotiated agreements for workers, expecting to benefit from this electorally. For the students, it was an unforgivable betrayal, and what close links there had been between French students (and radical intellectuals) and the Communist Party were broken, beginning the long decline of the French Communist Party toward eventual political irrelevance. In the 1968 election, the number of Communist Party deputies fell from 73 to 34.

Intellectually, the Left’s domination of academic life continued, but anti-Marxist revision in French history—Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and François Furet come dramatically to mind—opened new theoretical perspectives for serious French students. The “new philosophers” of whom Mahoney writes— Alain Besançon, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al.—found vast audiences for their books, and the latter became an intellectual rock star on French television and radio talk shows. In 1978, Henri Lepage had a French bestseller with Demain le capitalisme (Tomorrow, Capitalism), and through his effort and those of a growing number of French academic economists and economic historians, the works of F.A. Hayek and the Austrian economists were translated into French. The wonder is not that France remains statist; it always has been so. The wonder is not that so many intellectuals are on the Left; that has been so for most of the history of postwar France. The wonder is that the disillusionments of 1968 created spaces for a richer diversity of serious thought.

The response to “the Sixties” in the United States was not dissimilar. In the 1972 general election, the New Left’s favored candidate for President, Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), lost in a landslide, winning one state and the District of Columbia. Conservative and libertarian think tanks flourished and changed minds. In 1980 and 1984, though demonized and ridiculed by the Left, Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections, securing the Electoral College in the second by 525 to 13. Dramatically, given the appearance of campus and youth culture, he won the 18-to-24-year-old vote with 61 percent. That, too, was a legacy of the Sixties.

The thought of the modern academic Left, which so concerns Mahoney, preceded May 1968, to say the least, and it was and continues to be an international phenomenon. The actuality of intellectual adversarial culture and of its detachment from a natural reality that is independent of human wish and fantasy is a tragedy through which we have lived for generations now. Is France at the center of this? Compared with the United States? Canada? Germany? Great Britain?

The crime is not that some substantial number of people fatuously but very dangerously imagine that goodness, wisdom, order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that it is malice, folly, disorder, war, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty that stand in need of historical and cultural explanation. (They have it all precisely reversed.) Such beliefs were reinforced, not created, by the Sixties, and certainly neither created nor particularly shaped by May 1968 and its legacy. No, the crime is that the civil societies of the diverse civilizations of the West have permitted the cultural Left to create and strengthen closed-shop, ideologically exclusive, coercive, intolerant, and massively subsidized fiefdoms in virtually all the institutions to which we turn for the education of our children.

In 1963, Mao Zedong wrote a poem called “Reply to Comrade Kuo Mo-jo” that expressed the “Maoism” so fashionable in the France of 1968. It ended, “Away with all that’s evil! Our strength is irresistible.”[1]

What should May 1968 teach us? Their strength is wholly resistible. The reality principle will out. The amount of evil that we must endure en route depends upon our willingness to act. Historians and other analysts debate whether de Gaulle was ready to flee in May 1968. For whatever reason, he did not. He summoned those who cared about a society governed by those duly elected and by the rule of law. They filled the streets of Paris in a peaceful procession and changed the course of European and perhaps of Western history. That, too, was a legacy of May 1968.

[1] The Red Guard: A Report on Mao’s Revolution by Hans Granqvist, translated by Erik J. Friis (Praeger, 1967), p. 3.