Fifty year anniversaries are important markers in our culture. This is the case whether we are acknowledging an individual’s stay on earth or some greater historical moment. This is why so many are remembering the year 1968 in 2018. The nature of these reminiscences varies. Mainstream media coverage writes about 1968 as the year that tore many societies apart—Martin Luther King assassinated in the United States and rebellion in the inner city, the TET offensive in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, to name just a few. All of these manifestations represent the essence of the cataclysmic changes that came to a head in 1968. There were also student protests and riots in West Germany and the student-worker insurrection of May 1968 in France.
It was the latter events in France that held much of the student left around the world spellbound for several weeks in the spring of 1968. What began as a student protest against restrictive dorm rules preventing overnight visits between men and women turned into a protest that forced President DeGaulle from the presidency and brought much of the country to a standstill. Unfortunately, the right-wing was able to recover from the blow and ended up arguably with more political power after all was said and done. However, while the battles between police and students raged and as workers took over their places of work across the nation, the hopes of the international New Left rose with each turn in the French events.
Naturally, books were written in the wake of the events of May in France. These included Daniel Singer’s Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 and Obsolete Communism: The Left-wing Alternative by Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. Singer was a journalist who wrote regularly for the left-leaning US journal The Nation while the Cohn-Bendits were participants in the events. Indeed, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a leader in the early weeks of the uprising and it was his punishment by the authorities in Nanterre that provoked much greater protest there and Paris early in the events. Other texts released in the months following the events were often collections of the texts of the numerous broadsides and pamphlets published by groups and individuals that included the Situationists and the Enragés—two loosely-knit groups of artists and intellectuals devoted to challenging the nature of modern capitalist society and culture.
Besides the books published in the immediate aftermath, many other books ranging from intellectual discourses to visually stunning presentations of photographs detailing the events and the media of the protesters have been released over the decades. A couple of my favorites in the latter category include Beauty is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising and Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 1968 while one of the best in the former is Ken Knabb’s classic text Situationist International Anthology. This brief list is but an introduction.
The most recent book on May 1968 in France is unique in its approach. Titled May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France, it is one of the few English texts (if not the only one) that is composed entirely of viewpoints and memories of those who actually participated, not as journalists or observers but as protesters, organizers and cobblestone throwers. The editor, writer and translator Mitchell Abidor, separates the text into five sections. They are titled “An Introduction,” “Veterans in the Struggle,” “Students in Paris,” “May outside Paris,” “May and Film,” and “Some Anarchists.” These titles are self-explanatory. Each section features interviews with individuals who fall under each category. The interviews begin with a brief introduction describing what role the interviewee played in 1968 and their current occupation and politics. After the introduction, Abidor begins the conversation with a question that leads to a series of incredibly interesting recollection and reflection. Although every interviewee was politically located on the Left, there is quite a variety of perceptions here. A commonly held opinion of them all—from Communist party member to gauchist (new leftists of a sort) to anarchist—is that the protests failed politically but forever changed French culture and society. Some argued that it was capitalism that benefitted from this cultural revolution, not the workers or the students. If one considers the protests and rebellions in other parts of the world—from Chicago to Columbia, Beijing to Prague and Mexico City—it can be easily argued that this was the case in much of the rest of the world, too.
I am reminded of a History of the ‘60s course I co-taught with historian Jay Moore at the University of Vermont in the late 1990s. Jay and I would usually let the students dominate the in-class discussions, often serving merely as guides and easy references when facts were wrong or lacking. However, I do recall one or two class sessions when we shared what the period known as the Sixties meant to us and what if any permanent changes that period made in US society. For my answer I would tell students that when I was growing up there were no women bus drivers, very few women doctors, no Black police officers, no women and very few Blacks working construction and gays were invisible or the subject of total scorn and ridicule. Girls could not wear pants to school and boys had to have short hair. Dorms were segregated by gender and contraception was very difficult to obtain in many places. After making my point about the discrimination and social repression that was the norm, I would talk about going to the grocery store in town and having my groceries rung up by a young man who had a pierced nose, blue and red hair that was cut in various lengths and a left arm full of tattoos. In other words, I agreed with the people interviewed in May Made Me: while the dominant culture of western society is more tolerant of difference, the political structure has become more right wing and more authoritarian. Meanwhile, the economic system has strengthened its domination over everything and everyone.