POWER AND PROTEST IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY:
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND POLITICS
(7) Beats, Hippies, and the Movements of the “Sixties”.
Links to related pages: Notes on the Youth and Counter-culture Movement
Link to: Imagining Other index page.
Review by Ian Pirie of:
When Poetry Ruled the Streets.
The French May Events of 1968 by Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman.
This review first appeared in Democratisation (a Frank Cass Journal) – summer 2002. I have since made minor changes and added a few footnotes.
What is the significance of the French “May Events”? This book reminds us of the extent of the
upheaval: at its height some 10 million French workers in all branches of
industry were on strike. Initially this was in solidarity with demonstrating
students who had been brutally attacked by the CRS (riot police), and
initially, trade union leaders were happy to go along with a strike, especially
if it was only for a 24-hour stoppage. However, the nature of the demands - from
both workers and students - soon escalated, and radical ideas of workers’
self-management (hitherto associated with the relatively small anarchist,
situationist and council communist movements) took root. All over
As Douglas Kellner notes in his Foreword, much has been written on the “Events”, and many differing accounts and interpretations have been given. For any observer, it is difficult (perhaps impossible!) to avoid one’s own political perspective distorting the interpretation. This book is written by two participants, and has two parts: the first tells us “what happened in May” and is primarily a chronological narrative; and the second comprises “documents of the May Movement”, arranged thematically in groups, each prefaced by an “essay” by Andrew Freenberg. One of the most valuable features of this book, as Kellner states, is to give “access to many key original documents… [which] reveal the self-understanding of the actual participants.” The account of the events does largely succeed in conveying the motives of the different actors, giving a sympathetic picture of the students’ and workers’ aims, and describing the twists and turns of the events, whilst avoiding getting too caught up in the internecine quarrels that were part of it all.
Having said this, I was left with a feeling of disappointment in the book, which I think comes from two main directions. Most important is what I read as the authors’ ambivalence about what they themselves recognise as at the heart of the Events – the demand for “self-management”. In Part III (The Last Act) they write of “The intangible notion of democratisation” and the “vague idea of self-management” (p. 47), which the CGT and Communist Party were (not unsurprisingly!) having difficulty with. Yet the final document in the collection describes how, in Nantes, striking workers, their wives, local residents, farmers and students co-operated in running the town, supplying food at wholesale prices, looking after children while teachers were on strike and factories occupied, controlling traffic, and ensuring that electricity was supplied to essential services even if it was cut off to factories. In the face of all this, the local authorities were powerless. Nothing “vague” here!
Secondly, there seem to me to be serious shortcomings in their theoretical analysis (which probably explain the authors’ ambivalence towards self-management). They compare the Events to the “last great wave of European revolutions that followed World War I” (p. 150), where workers’ councils were central – a focus on the industrial conflict; but they also say that this was a “return to the [anarchist and libertarian Marxist] idea of social revolution”; finally, the book’s title reflects the social and cultural dimension of the Events. However, there is no development of a theoretical perspective which might link these dimensions, explain what is meant by social revolution, and show how the different actors were drawn together in a common struggle. Perhaps the authors want to resist this integration, since, on p. 68, they describe the legacy of the Events as transforming “resistance to technocratic authority and consumer society…into a basis for a new kind of mass politics that continues to live in a variety of forms to this day.” Is there any connection between “technocratic authority” and a “consumer society”? What is the new kind of politics, and is it split into a variety of forms, or is there one (“social”) movement which aims at changing one dominant kind of society? These questions remain un-addressed.
The situationists themselves argued that technocracy, bureaucracy,
consumerism, the alienation of workers, the industrialisation of higher
education, the impoverishment of our cultural life - all sprang from the same
roots, the “society of the spectacle”.
Other participants such as Alain
In sum, “When Poetry…” is a good introductory overview of the Events, but for a better insight into the historical precursors of the “active strike” in France, and more awareness of the richness and variety of radical political views involved I would suggest:
Richard Gombin in Anarchism Today, (ed. Apter and Joll, Macmillan 1971).
Castoriadis (op cit, and see my introduction to Castoriadis: Recommencing Revolution)
Maurice Brinton (“
With these writers - especially Brinton - you get a better sense of how thrilling the Events were; and an account of the imaginative, creative capacity of ordinary people when they have power over their own lives. You also, incidentally, get more examples of how far the Communist Party was prepared to go, in lies, misrepresentation and manipulation, to prevent the social revolution, and to retain control over events. Feenberg and Freedman let the Communists (and Trotskyists) off pretty lightly, and perhaps the weaknesses of their analysis lie in their having too much sympathy for the more standard Marxist interpretations of the Events.
 The workers refused to have their demands reduced, by their “leadership”, to traditional trade union demands for higher wages; just as the protesters refused to have their demands for a new society watered down to a change of political leadership.
It is not clear to me what current movements the authors are referring to. For me there are at least three interlinked respects in which the May 68 events are still valuable today:
(i) experiments with democracy which challenge hierarchies of all kinds (including, and above all, in political parties, government bureaucracies and trade unions, but going beyond them to education etc, and to revolutionary organisations themselves);
(ii) the attempt to link struggles of students and workers for a better life – based on the belief that both “manual” and “intellectual” workers are caught in the same ‘alienating’ system, and that theory and practice cannot be separated…; and
(iii) that a better life means not just higher wages, job security or safer working conditions, even longer holidays, but that life is about something more than “work” – that poetry, music and the many other ways in which we freely exercise our creative imagination, are essential ingredients.
Strangely, DK in the Foreword to this book reduces the last two of the above radical demands to such “challenges” as whether we can have fulfilling work, and more freedom within bureaucracies. Is this what the authors mean?
 and usually there is more useful contextualisation and interpretation in these writers.