France’s Psychodrama of 1968

We are now approaching the 50th anniversary of the aborted French Revolution of May 1968, what the French rather euphemistically call “the events” of ’68. Anglo-American readers may wonder if  “the events” have any larger significance today even if it is not the one intended by the original actors in this revolutionary psychodrama, to use Raymond Aron’s expression. As I shall argue, the answer is an emphatic yes.[1]

“The events” were inspired in no small part by, and gave much greater impetus to, what Roger Scruton has called a “culture of repudiation.” This culture or dispensation was amplified by the systematic challenge to civilized order that was launched in the streets of Paris and other French cities and towns half a century go. Thenceforth, every assault on established authority was celebrated as a victory for personal freedom and authenticity. The very ideas of a normative human nature—and of limits rooted in the order of things—were now rejected as unbearable obstacles to the new “democratic” way.

Those who loathe what May 1968 represents and those who welcome it for its “liberating” and transformative effects on France and Europe agree retrospectively that it was a defining moment in giving shape to Western democracy in its late modern form. Its anarchist, Maoist, and Trotskyite architects did not succeed in bringing down Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic or in establishing a utopian political and social order that would miraculously combine “direct democracy” in all the institutions of society with revolutionary socialism and a cult of violence. The positive vision of its architects, which veered incoherently between anarchism and revolutionary romanticism (and indulgence of the worst tyrannies from Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Mao Zedong’s China), was a chimera that could never have resulted in coherent or humane social and political institutions.

The foregoing is distilled from the central argument of Raymond Aron’s La revolution introuvable (The Elusive Revolution, 1969), a book that still rewards careful reading. Aron was that rare thing in France: neither a partisan nor a bitter critic of the Gaullist Republic. He acknowledged the political greatness and human qualities of de Gaulle but refused to partake in anything resembling a cult of personality. In Aron’s view, de Gaulle had indeed twice saved France, in 1940 and 1958, by continuing resistance to Nazism and refounding a viable French state, and he should in no way be confused with a Bonapartist usurper.

But de Gaulle’s regime, and its acolytes, were too dismissive of non-Gaullist Frenchmen and were inclined to confuse presidential rule with a monarchy infused with oligarchic tendencies. Aron was also an adamant critic of the tendency of de Gaulle’s foreign policy to put itself in a middle position between the United States and the Soviet Union—as if high-minded neutrality (or the pretense of neutrality) was an option in the Cold War. (Gaullist France did, it must be added, side unhesitatingly with the United States during the various Berlin crises and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.)

This non-Gaullist nonetheless became the sternest and most vocal critic of the pseudo-Revolution that unfolded so dramatically throughout May 1968. Aron, by then 63 years old, was a French patriot who could not abide a frontal assault on free institutions or a denial of legitimate authority in the state, industry, and especially the liberal university. This assault on legitimate social and political authority risked undoing the work of the Fifth Republic and making France look weak and divided before the outside world. It pained Aron in a way it could not pain younger people, who had no real experience of the tragedies of the 20th century.

In his columns in Le Figaro and in his retrospective take on “the events” in The Elusive Revolution, Aron supported “the continuity of legal government” much as Alexis de Tocqueville had done during the February 1848 Revolution. Despite his criticisms of the tone or style of the Gaullist regime (and some of the misplaced premises of its foreign policy), Aron recognized that it was “based on universal suffrage and does not violate fundamental liberties.” It was a decent and legitimate regime. The cause of de Gaulle, in May 1968, was thus the cause of constitutional government and ordered liberty.

Restoration of Order and the Thought of ’68

After a month or more of violence, barricades, and unrest in the universities, and a general strike by millions of workers, Aron applauded de Gaulle’s radio address of May 30, 1968, which tried to recall the French people to their senses—and largely succeeded in doing so. In his radio address, de Gaulle denounced the “totalitarian enterprise” that was the Communist Party and demanded a return to order in which teachers could teach, students could learn, and workers could work again. He spoke with a laconic eloquence to the non-communist majority (three quarters or more of the French) who did not want to see a revolutionary solution to the crisis provoked by the soixante-huitards. On this occasion, unlike a televised address he gave a week earlier, de Gaulle worked his old magic, his return to the radio being reminiscent of his famous “Appeal” to honor and resistance of June 18, 1940. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens, France’s silent majority, spontaneously marched down the Champs-Élysées to express support for de Gaulle and the restoration of ordered liberty and constitutional government. Aron was among them.

The threat of political revolution, or of the collapse of the Fifth Republic, was thus averted. De Gaulle called elections for July that resulted in a Gaullist supermajority. How, then, can we speak of “the events” as being fundamentally revolutionary and transformative in character when they failed to bring down the established order?

Aron, for one, underestimated the long-term consequences of what he did not cease to denounce as a revolutionary “carnival” and “psychodrama.” Only later did he admit that May 1968 was evidence of a “crisis of civilization” in which all authoritative institutions (the state, the army, the churches, the universities) were challenged in the name of an individualism that was coextensive with antinomianism. The “social consensus” on which authoritative institutions depended had come under systematic assault in May 1968. Authoritative institutions were confused by the “Thought of ’68” (more on this below) with illicit power and domination—as if authority was always and everywhere “authoritarian.”

That spirit of “subversion” (or of “emancipation” or “liberation,” according to those who wax nostalgic about “the events”) would do its silent work in the succeeding days and years. The party of order won the immediate victory, but the party of subversion/emancipation came to shape the mores of a transformed European order. And the “Thought of ’68” would come to have an immense influence on the humanities and social theorizing in universities throughout the Western world. “The Thought of ’68” is thus one of the victors of this strange affair. And it has done much to shape interpretations of “the events” in our universities and among journalists who are clearly nostalgic for their revolutionary youths. The 50th anniversary commemorations in France and other countries are sure to be no different in this regard.

Irresponsibility of the Intellectuals

What may have disturbed Aron most was the irresponsibility of the intellectuals, some of whom he respected, such as the Machiavelli scholar Claude Lefort and the sociologist Edgar Morin. They responded with a juvenile giddiness to the idea of a university (and other social institutions) where hierarchy would disappear, replaced by a direct democracy wholly unsuitable in a large nation-state, in massive business organizations, and in universities of any size. They were undermining “the unforced discipline” and “social cohesion” upon which all authoritative institutions, including the university, depended. Moreover, Aron argued, it was “aesthetic nihilism” to welcome the dislocation of the entirety of a decent and free society, as if something better would automatically emerge in its place.

Aron mocked the partisans of “direct democracy” when the real alternatives remained a semi-liberal capitalist society that respected basic freedoms, or a planned society, which historically had little or no room for freedom or initiative. In the guise of support for the outbreak of unprecedented freedom, the intellectuals who indulged violence and lawlessness in May 1968 undermined the only societies in human history to prudently and humanely combine fidelity to liberty and economic efficiency. They somehow believed they could combine Marxism or Marxist-Leninism—which everywhere gave rise both to gargantuan bureaucracies and repressive police states—with a social order stripped of all hierarchy and obligations. They were literally “out of their minds,” as Aron notes numerous times.

Like Tocqueville in 1848 (see Recollections or Souvenirs of the 1848 Revolution, published in 1893, from which Aron liberally quotes), Aron lamented the “literary politics” of French intellectuals who confused dreams for realities, who wanted to uproot a society and political order that was decent by any comparative standards, and who confused “emancipation” with an impulse that was essentially “negative, nihilist, or destructive.” Nor could Aron stomach intellectuals or students who preferred a revolutionary agitator (and known executioner) such as Che Guevara to an authentic statesman like Charles de Gaulle. As John Leonard once observed, Aron remained sober at the revolutionary saturnalia. He refused to “salute our ‘admirable youth’” who had chosen the path of disruption, lawlessness, barricades, and violence. The cult of violence was reminiscent of fascism and totalitarianism and could in no way be seen as an instrument of liberating freedom.

Aron acknowledged that everyone was play acting in May 1968 in the sense of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s deft 1848 observation that the French are a nation of actors. And yes, he acknowledged that he played the part of Tocqueville, standing for prudence, moderation, and good sense amidst the revolutionary madness. This appropriation of the great French liberal was “not without a touch of the ridiculous.” But others played Louis Antione de Saint Just, Maximilien Robespierre or Vladimir Lenin, “which all things considered was even more ridiculous.” Aron’s sobriety and lucidity stand out in a setting in which so many intellectuals were drunk with ideology and had succumbed to momentary enthusiasms of questionable sanity.

In their book La pensée 68, published in 1988, the French philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renault credit Aron with appreciating the crucial role that quasi-nihilist intellectuals played in “the events.”  As Aron noted in The Elusive Revolution, May ’68 was marked by a distinct ideology that combined Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan. This ideology was one cause of the event—radical politics, discontent with conditions in the French university, and sheer boredom being others. This ideology of subversion veered back and forth from scientism to a predictable and unthinking leftism, and expressed itself in a most byzantine manner. (Foucault is something of an exception in the latter regard.) In May ’68, structuralism combined with “Maoism in action” and with a willful confusion of authority and class-based “domination.” As Aron argued at the time, even Jean-Paul Sartre’s “groupe en fusion” from The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1961) made a comeback, with its celebration of redemptive violence as a means of overcoming bourgeois individualism.

This assault on authority, even the authority of truth, would continue long after May 1968. The glorification of violence was one lamentable manifestation of the nihilism of the intellectuals, according to Aron. But the fashionable attacks on truth and even “facts” that was central to the “Thought of ’68” would subvert almost every current of contemporary social thought and literary analysis. The assault on the authority of truth, which is just another manifestation of the domineering quality of the soixante-huitards, would persist long after their illusions had dissipated into revolutionary kitsch or nostalgia, or mere nihilistic disdain for the existing liberal order.

Roger Scruton on “the Events”

In the evocative and beautifully written memoir of May 1968 included in his autobiographical Gentle Regrets (2005), the English philosopher Roger Scruton also excoriates the nihilism he saw all around him when he was living and studying in Paris during those crucial weeks. Scruton was perplexed by the antipathy that privileged students directed at a bourgeoisie that rebuilt the freedom and prosperity of France from the ruins of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation. What good could come from the children of the middle classes playing at “toy barricades”?

Scruton saw no vision of France and French culture of the kind that was so eloquently expressed in de Gaulle’s War Memoirs (1955). De Gaulle had a “certain idea of France,” noble and elevated, one that combined loyalty to country with great enterprises. No Napoléon, he always respected the basic liberties of the French people. His vision was constructive and had nothing to do with the “adolescent insouciance” of pseudo-revolutionaries intent on “throwing away all customs, institutions, and achievements.” The greatest French statesman of the century placed his faith in the best resources of French and European civilization.

If Aron turned to Tocqueville as a guide during the revolutionary “events,” Scruton came to see wisdom in Edmund Burke’s opposition to the ideology of progress and its “unscrupulous belief in the future that has dominated and perverted modern politics.” Appealing to the wisdom of Tocqueville and Burke, respectively, Aron and Scruton rejected “the culture of repudiation” to which May ’68 and its analogues in other Western countries gave such impetus. Deformed French theory, truth-denying and antinomian to the core, was the vehicle by which the culture of repudiation took theoretical form and began to disseminate its subversive assumptions.

Scruton cites the example of Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (1966). This book was in the air at the time of “the events” and has become orthodoxy in most humanities departments. It is a book written with “satanic mendacity,” according to Scruton, “selectively appropriating facts,” which after all don’t exist, “to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the ‘discourses’ of power.” Truth also comes under assault, always the product of the reining consciousness of the age, the epistime. Foucault finds power everywhere, authentic authority or authoritative institutions nowhere. “Where there is power there is oppression,” Scruton writes. The Foucaultian will to destroy played itself out politically in May 1968. Now it merely repudiates the patrimony of the West, undermining loyalty and fidelity while putting nothing constructive in its place. It is a barely concealed nihilism.

The Continuing Revolution

To Aron’s and Scruton’s analyses let us add those of Alain Besançon and Pierre Manent, students and friends of Aron and distinguished thinkers in their own right. Besançon acknowledges the truth of Aron’s analysis but takes it one crucial step further, writing that the real meaning of May ’68 would only became apparent later. If the American and French revolutions installed democracy in the political realm (very imperfectly in the French case), “May ’68 has extended the field of democracy to the whole of the social order.” Tocqueville’s “democratic revolution is not finished.”

Individual consent is no longer primarily a precious political principle but must be applied with equal fervor to the family, university, the army, and the churches. No authoritative institutions are to be respected. And the very idea of human nature—and an accompanying moral law—is to be spurned in the name of full-blown “autonomy.” This radicalization of democracy—a profound “corruption,” no doubt, of what Tocqueville in his Souvenirs called “a moderate, regulated liberty disciplined by faith, mores, and laws”—was deeply informed by the ideas and mores that took root with “the events.”

This spirit of cultural and moral subversion was already at work in the Western world. But “the events” shook the confidence of the old order and gave support to an individualism that feels free to dispense with authority and the spirit of national loyalty and voluntary self-limitation. In some sense, democracy broke with the Old West at that point, disavowing what I have elsewhere called its “conservative foundations.” They are not dead—some are indeed impulses rooted deeply in human nature—but they lack moral and political legitimacy in the new version of democracy that reigns supreme. As Pierre Manent has put it, with May ’68, the “citizen of action” (and national loyalty), epitomized by de Gaulle, has been replaced really and symbolically by “the individual of enjoyment,” the hedonist who has withdrawn from public life and who asserts his “rights” with reckless abandon.

Manent observes that in this post-’68 world, politics is on life support. Political argumentation has been replaced by moral condemnation. The soixante-huitards had announced with adolescent insouciance that “it was forbidden to forbid.” That was their motto par excellence, a revelation of their contempt for moral judgment and moral authority. But their official relativism, nay nihilism, has given rise to limitless moralism, a systematic assault on tradition, the moral law, and as I suggested before, the very idea of a normative human nature. Today, the politically correct, the children of ’68, multiply their prohibitions to the point that freedom of expression is under genuine assault. They are perfectly content to forbid anything at odds with the ideology of liberation.

Only by freeing ourselves from the spirit of ’68 and the culture of repudiation that inspired it and flowed so expansively from it, can we recover authentic public life and a respect for the moral and political authority that always undergirds liberty and human dignity, properly understood. The authors discussed above, from Burke and Tocqueville to Aron, Scruton, and Manent, provide immense resources for this act of political and spiritual recovery. But we must understand what was at stake in the May Revolution before we can begin to free ourselves from the allure of the culture of repudiation and the “literary politics” that too often inform discussions of “the events.”

For some in France today, to be against May ’68 is to be a reactionary who disdains true democracy. This consensus is as lazy as it is false. True democracy recognizes humanizing limits and freely bows before the authority of truth and the moral law.

[1] In writing this essay, I have relied extensively on the following sources. Raymond Aron, The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of A Student Revolt, translated by Gordon Clough (Praeger Publishers, 1969), especially pp. xvi, 4, 17, 21, 26-27, 37, 122, 125, and 126. For a particularly evocative discussion of the nihilism undergirding the May “events” see “How I Became a Conservative,” a 2005 essay to be found in The Roger Scruton Reader, compiled, edited and introduced by Mark Dooley (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009), pp. 3-14; and see p. 14 for a trenchant account of Scruton’s discovery of Edmund Burke’s humane conservatism.

For a penetrating dissection of the “Thought of ’68” in its various manifestations, see Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, La pensée 68 (Gallimard, 1988, 2008). For an illuminating discussion of the radicalization of democracy entailed in May ’68, see Alain Besançon, “Souvenirs et réflexions sur mai 68,” Commentaire, été 2008, No. 122, pp. 507-520.

I have also quoted from Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism (St. Augustine Press, 2016), pp. 4 and 5, and a recent radio interview with Manent on “the events” (Radio Notre Dame, February 8, 2018). For an egregious assault on any and all criticism of May ’68, see Serge Audier, La pensée anti-68 (Le Découverte, 2008). Audier’s book is all the more problematic because of its perverse efforts to appropriate Aron for the leftist cause.