May '68 and Its Afterlives

May '68 and Its Afterlives

by Kristin Ross

During May 1968, students and workers in France united in the biggest strike and the largest mass movement in French history.

Recovering the political language of May '68 through the tracts, pamphlets, and documentary film footage of the era, Ross reveals how the original movement, concerned above all with the question of equality, gained a new and counterfeit history, one that erased police violence and the deaths of participants, removed workers from the picture, and eliminated all traces of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and the influences of Algeria and Vietnam.

May '68 and Its Afterlives is especially timely given the rise of a new mass political movement opposing global capitalism, from labor strikes and anti-McDonald's protests in France to the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.03
  • Pages: 247
  • Publish Date: May 1st 2004 by University of Chicago Press
  • Isbn10: 0226727998
  • Isbn13: 9780226727998

What People Think about "May '68 and Its Afterlives"

This is quite a good book, interesting and sophisticated, though at times somewhat dense and jargony (hence the lost star) -- definitely written from a 'radical' perspective.

I am less interested in the revisionist terms of the official story- whether it be the great rebellion by angry youth against the restrictions of their fathers or its corollary, the emergence of a new social category called youth. Another way of saying this is that the political subjectivity which emerged in May was a relational one, built around a polemics of equality.

Only the most immediate of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events. For what does it mean that art should suddenly see its purpose as that of keeping apace with events, with achieving a complete contemporaneity with the present and with what is happening around it? Nowhere is this more apparent than in the experience of the Beaux-Arts students who occupied their school in mid-May 1968, proclaimed it the revolutionary Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts, and began producing, at breakneck speed, the posters supporting the strike that covered the walls of Paris during those months. The message of the majority of posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening the interruption, the strike, the moving train that it simply continue: Continuons le combat. Speed, a speedy technique, was of the essence; students learned this soon enough when they abandoned lithography early on because, at ten to fifteen printings an hour, it was far too slow to respond to the needs of a mass movement. Fromanger describes in greater detail the stages in the dismantling of art and artists during May: how, as the mass demonstrations got under way in mid-May, art students first got down off their horses to gather the flowers, as the Maoists would say, how they left art behind as they ran from demo to demo. Bourgeois culture, reads the statement that accompanied the founding of the Atelier populaire, separates and isolates artists from other workers by according them a privileged status. + On October 17, 1961, the first mass demonstration of the 1960s occurred, organized by the FLN to protest a recent curfew set by the prefect of police that prohibited Algerians in the Paris region from being on the street after 8:30 PM. The Algerians between thirty and forty-thousand men, women and children are, in fact, unarmed, and the demonstration is peaceful. Some of the arrested men and women are taken to the courtyard of the prefecture of police where, as Pierre Vidal-Baquet reports, If I believe the testimony of one policeman, gathered immediately after the event by Paul Thibaud and that Ive often had occasion to evoke since then, Papon had several dozen Algerians beaten matraqué to death in front of his eyes in the courtyard of the police prefecture. On the night of October 17, the police publish a communiqué stating that the Algerians had fired on police, who were then forced to return fire. The almost total news blackout that surrounded the event makes it very hard to determine the exact number of Algerians for no police were injured who actually died. Such an experience lies to the side of seizing state power; outside of that story. Limiting May 68 to that story, to the desire or the failure to seize centralized power, has circumscribed the very definition of the political, crushing or effacing in the process a political dimension to the events that may in fact have constituted the true threat to the forces of order, the reason for their panic. In the course of the struggle, practices were developed that demonstrated such a synchronization, that acted to constitute a common though far from consensual space and time.

Ross argued that, in French historical discourse, the French state, allied with the few spokesmen of the insurrection, worked to defang the largest general strike in the overdeveloped world after World War II, and the largest in French history, three times the size of any of the largest strikes in the Popular Front era in 1936. Ross also argues in 4 chapters that in the years afterwards, repentant ex-Maoists helped distance themselves from the revolution and work to defang its memory, calling it a cultural or spiritual revolution rather than political one, since no one seized power nor did it change anything in the day to day. Ross argues strongly that this argument takes away agency from the millions of participants who participated in the weeks of breakdown of traditional social institutions.

Ross can hit you with some big words and ideas at times. The fact that May ended without a political victory for the left hardly signals that nothing happened in May, as sociologists and popular memory like to insist.