May 68' - A Compendium
Situationist reflections on the uprisings in France, May 1968
The 50th anniversary of the events of France/ May 68' passed earlier this year with little fanfare - maybe there wasn't much left to say after 50 yr of endless rehash and revision. What coverage there was left the usual analysis – lite / image heavy trail in it’s wake : young street fighting Parisians, earnest but chic looking Sorbonne occupiers, the iconic graffiti and posters on ageing city walls : imagery all long since passed into the mythology of pop-situ subculture, endlessly recycled and recuperated, stripped bare of meaningful political legacy.
Within that mythology, the role of the Situationists has long been contested : underplayed or overplayed, and often misunderstood. Situationist International membership numbers never exceeded the low 80's during it's 15 years existence, and active Situ supporters amongst the Sorbonne occupation movement in early May 68' were in single digits, heavily outnumbered by the 57 varieties of Maoist, Trot and Tankie that surrounded them. What happened outside of the Sorbonne, as workers broke free from moribund, Communist Party controlled Union federations , occupying factories across France, dwarfed the initial student uprisings in terms of scale and potential impact.
But "Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach" is always going to look zingier on a t shirt than '10m rank and file workers on strike by the End of May', and May 68' will to some extent always be associated with youth-lead, subcultural political energy, and the few Situationists that helped foment it. This compendium reprints crucial pieces written by the Situationists themselves, some contemporaneously and from the heart of the events, helping show the reality of May 68' as a reaction to a profound systemic stasis running through mid 20th C capitalism, and a direct response to the autocratic, hierarchical, and tradition-bound ruling class that still oversaw it in France.
"On The Poverty Of Student Life"(1966) was originally printed when 5 (loosely) pro Situs were elected to Strasbourg Uni Student Union, and appropriated union funds to print 10,000 copies of the work, largely drafted by Tunisian Situationist Mustapha Omar Khayati, with input from the students . It's, searing, wide screen critique of what the authors considered the miserable, passive consumerism of the modern hipster student, was a powerful portent of what was to come:
"The real poverty of his everyday life finds its immediate phantastic compensation in the opium of cultural commodities... he is obliged to discover modern culture as an admiring spectator... he thinks he is avant-garde if he's seen the latest Godard or 'participated' in the latest 'happening'. He discovers modernity as fast as the market can provide it:"
The students used an André Bertrand's comic strip "The Return of the Durruti Column" to publicize the pamphlet on campus, most famously using a detourned movie still showing two cowboys sharing an oblique exchange :
(The fact that a cartoon originally created to help attack empty hipsterism ended up with it's own catalogue number ( Fac : 30 ) on Factory Records ( due to Tony Wilson / Peter Saville using the name / imagery for Vini Reilly's 'Durrutti Column' project) is one of those great ironies that Situationism can never escape – but that a subject for another time).
Cowboy 1: "What's your scene, man?"
Cowboy 2: "Reification*"
Cowboy 1: "Yeah? I guess that means pretty hard work with big books and piles of paper on a big table."
Cowboy 2: "Nope. I drift. Mostly I just drift."
The five Strasbourg student unionists were promptly expelled, and the union shut down under court order, but the heat surrounding the episode helped fan flames that spread quickly to the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris ( March 1968), and soon to the Sorbonne campus.
"Our Goals And Methods In The Strasbourg Scandal" was published in Internationale Situationniste #11 October 1967, a detailed account of the Strasbourg 'scandal' : unflinching in it's assessment of the significance of the student based events in their own right, eerily prophetic with regard to it's possible wider significance going forward :
"revolutionary youth has no alternative but to join with the mass of workers who, starting from their experience of the new conditions of exploitation, are going to take up once again the struggle to control their world and to do away with work. When young people begin to know the current theoretical form of this real movement that is everywhere spontaneously bursting forth from the soil of modern society, this is only a moment of the progression by which this unified theoretical critique (inseparable from an adequate practical unification) strives to break the silence and the general organization of separation. It is only in this sense that we find the result satisfactory. In speaking of revolutionary youth, we are obviously not referring to that alienated and semi-privileged fraction molded by the university — a sector that is the natural base for an admiring consumption of a fantasized situationist theory considered as the latest spectacular fashion. We will continue to disappoint and refute that kind of approbation. Sooner or later it will be understood that the SI must be judged not on the superficially scandalous aspects of certain manifestations through which it appears, but on its essentially scandalous central truth."
No work written since May 68' has offered a more accurate, first person perspective on the events that followed than "Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement"( (Paris: Gallimard, 1968)
Written by Rene Vienet, a young pro Situ student at the centre of the Sorbonne Occupation, (helped collectively by the Situationist International) "Enrages..." is a 60 page, chronological account of the events as they unfolded day by day; beginning in the Sorbonne, out into the surrounding streets of the Northern Quarter and beyond, soon into the Parisian factories, and by the end of May, nationwide.
OCCUPIED UNIVERSITY OF LYONS, MAY 1968'
The Enragés group itself (named after 1790's French Revolutionary firebrands) formed during the militant student struggle against police presence on the Nanterres campus in January 68', and numbered no more than 25 when that struggle spread to the Sorbonne university buildings.
From this group of "campus bums", Algerian anarchist Rene Riesel (joined the Situationist International June 68', expelled in 71') was elected president of the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne on 14th May 1968, days after the first full scale confrontation between protestors and the State had got to the discovering the 'beach beneath the paving stones' stage.
With Riesel as president of the Sorbonne Occupation Committee, the chasm of ideological and political space that separated the Enrages / pro Situs from the assorted Social Democrats, Communists, Student Union Bureaucrats, reformers, proto hippies and dreamers that made up the Sorbonne occupiers became crystal clear in the first general assembly of the occupation, 14th May, (nearly a week after the first substantial riot on May 6th) , and Riesel set out a list of demands ( Vienet's words, our bullet points ) as he sought election to the committee :
RENE RIESEL, DANIEL COHN BENDIT, PARIS, MAY 68’
• the question of the university had long since been surpassed and "exams had been cancelled at the barricades."
• he asked the assembly to come out for the freedom of all rioters, including those looters arrested on May 6th.
• he showed that the only future of the movement was with the workers - not "in their service," but at their side,
• and that the workers were in no way to be confused with their bureaucratic organizations.
• he asserted that the present alienation could not be fought while ignoring the alienations of the past - "No more chapels!"
• nor those being prepared for tomorrow - "sociologists and psychologists are the new cops."
• he denounced hierarchical relations with lecturers for being the same kind of policing.
• and warned of the recuperation of the movement by leftist leaders, and of its foreseeable liquidation by the Stalinists.
• Riesel concluded with a call for "all power to the workers' councils."
"There were diverse reactions to his intervention. Riesel's proposal concerning the looters got much more jeering than applause. The attack on the professors shocked the audience, as did the first open attack on the Stalinists. Nonetheless, when the assembly chose the first "Occupation Committee" as its executive organ, Riesel was elected."
So the tone was set : whilst the spectacular student led street confrontations and memorable graffiti haiku's dominated popular perception of the May events, the final demand from the most class conscious of the students at the centre of it all, was focused on the revolutionary, worker based demand : "all power to the workers' councils."
And unlike a 1000 proclaimations before or since, this was no abstract / idealistic call for student-worker solidarity etc, as the fast moving events quickly bore out.
The following day, strikers of the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes occupied their factory (14th May - with bosses reputedly soldered into their office), May 16th Renault-Cléon, Paris was occupied. Nine million workers were on strike by 24th May, reaching nearly 10 million two days later.
Over the next two weeks, the largest, Communist Party controlled union Federation, CGT, did all it could to prevent workers linking up with the occupying students, preventing representatives reaching the Renault factory, decrying revolutionaries as 'bourgeois agents', and repeatedly refused all calls to declare a general strike; instead they tried desperately to fire blanket the eruption of wildcat strikes blowing up around them.
Throughout 'Enrages...', whilst capturing the vitality and potentially world changing urgency of self organised insurrection, Vienet repeatedly stresses the determination of the bureaucrats in the student and workers unions to undermine mass action. Their initial failure to smother the insurrections is the unseen backdrop to 'the poetry of the streets' that Vienet also captures so gleefully.
RENAULT BILLANCOURT, PARIS, MAY 68 - ("Sous le Cliché's, le Factoires", as Liberation later titled this shot)
On the 24th May, an official CGT march ended with the usual anti De Gaulle platitudes from the platform, but a far more militant offshoot march, opposing the threatened deportation of Daniel Cohn Bendit, the emerging figurehead of the student movement in the eyes of the media, then attempted to march on the Hotel De Ville. Massed ranks of fired up Gendarmerie blocked all exits, barricades went up, and an estimated thirty thousand workers and student fought side by side until dawn.
"Some of the demonstrators were able to break through to the stock exchange and sack it. The fire, which would have fulfilled the dreams of generations of revolutionaries, did only superficial damage to the "Temple of Capital". Several groups had spread out into the areas around the stock exchange, Les Halles and the Bastille, and were moving out towards La Nation. Others had made it to the Left Bank and were holding the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, before moving in the direction of Denfert-Rochereau. The violence reached its peak. It had long since ceased to be the monopoly of the "students" and had become the privilege of the proletariat. The police stations at Odéon and in the Rue Beaubourg were enthusiastically sacked. Before the eyes of the impotent police, two paddywagons and a police car were fired with Molotov cocktails in front of the Panthéon police station.
LATIN QUARTER, PARIS, MAY 68' - " The streets belonged to those who were digging them up."
Thus the workers entered the struggle, not only against their unions, but moreover in sympathy with the movement of the students, and better still, of thugs and vandals defending absolutely scandalous slogans, ranging from "I COME OVER THE PAVING STONES" ("Je jouis dans les paves") to "NEVER WORK." None of the workers who left the factories to find the revolutionaries and work out a basis of agreement with them ever expressed any reservations about this extreme aspect of the movement. Quite the contrary: the workers didn't hesitate to build barricades, sack police stations, burn cars, and turn the Boulevard Saint-Michel into a vast garden, side-by-side with those Fouchet and the so-called Communist Party would the following day call "scum."
"The hierarchical pyramid had melted like a lump of sugar in the May sun"
The occupation / strike movement, which had taken over the key sectors of the economy, quickly spread to every sector of social life, "attacking all the control points of capitalism and bureaucracy", sweeping high school students, teachers, banks workers, insurance co’s, and media workers into the struggle.
An Ocean liner 'France', was seized by it's crew outside Le Havre, the researchers of the Meudon Observatory placed astronomical observation under self-management. The national presses were on strike. The grave diggers occupied the cemeteries. Football players kicked out the managers from their federation. Interns and young doctors expelled Directors from L'Ordre des Médecins "and put the old conceptions of medicine on trial".
"The 'oppositional managers' went so far as to question their own right to authority, the negative privilege of consuming more and therefore living less. Even the ad-men followed the example of the proletarians demanding the end of the proletariat, by demanding an end to advertising."
"Capitalized time stopped. Without any trains, metro, cars, or work the strikers recaptured the time so sadly lost in factories, on motorways, in front of the TV. People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by little, reality. For the first time youth really existed. Not the social category invented for the needs of the commodity economy by sociologists and economists, but the only real youth, of life lived without dead time, which rejects for the sake of intensity a repressive reference to age."
"The critique of everyday life successfully began to modify the landscape of alienation. The Rue Gay-Lussac was named the Rue du 11 Mai, red and black flags gave a human appearance to the fronts of public buildings. The Haussmannian perspective of the boulevards was corrected and the green belts redistributed and closed to traffic. Everyone, in his own way, made his own critique of urbanism. As for the critique of the artistic project, it was not to be found among the traveling salesmen of the happenings or the cold leftovers of the avant-garde, but in the streets, on the walls, and in the general movement of emancipation which carried within itself even the realization of art."
"Doctors, so often attached to the defense of corporate interests, passed into the camp of the revolution with a denunciation of the police functions forced upon them: "Capitalist society, under the cover of apparent neutrality (liberalism, medical vocation, non-combatant humanism) has put the doctor on the side of repression: he is charged with keeping the population fit for work and consumption (e.g. industrial medicine) and with making people accept a society that makes them sick (e.g. psychiatry). "It was the honor of the interns and nurses of the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital to denounce in practice that nightmare universe by occupying the buildings, chasing off the excrement whose demise Breton dreamed of, and taking into the occupation committee representatives of the so-called "sick."
As this revolution in everyday life was taking place in real world / real time, Meanwhile, by the 25th May the three main trade-union federations were in talks with the bosses organisations and government, all parties equally desperate to assert control on a situation none of them had much control over.
27th May : the workers at Renault-Billancourt rejected a 7% pay offer and raised minimum wage, and following this, all sectors rejected all pay offers.
By 28th May, President De Gaulle was reported to have left Paris, with talk of a new Provisional govt in the air, but in a nationally broadcast speech of 30th May he declared his intention to remain in power, and offered the stark and alarmist binary choice of elections or "civil war". Having lost all control over rank and file workers in this pre revolutionary situation, The Stalinists couldn't have been more eager to channel that revolutionary potential back down a traditional electoral cul de sac, and prove the worth of their trade union bureaucracy in keeping workers in factories.
Having learnt the lessons of the previous weeks, the government and their Union bureaucrat allies abandoned any idea of negotiations at national level and began the process of dismantling the strike "in the same way that it had begun, sector by sector, factory by factory". Despite concerted attempts at resisting both CGT and State led strike breaking over the following days, on June 5th a statement from the CGT headquarters announced "Everywhere that essential demands have been met, the interest of the workers is to come out en masse for a united resumption of work".
Newly re-emboldened paramilitary Police drove out occupying strikers from factories, brutally suppressing sporadic and fierce resistance from the likes of the steelworkers and Peugeot plant workers at Sochauxm. With the wind firmly back in it's sails, the CRS shot at workers for the first time in the crisis on June 12th, and two were killed at Sochauxm.
On June 13th, the govt enacted a wartime Popular Front law meant to be used against war fascist paramilitaries, to enable the disbanding of Maoist and Trotskyist organisations (the lessons to modern day liberals calling for bans and laws against right wingers should be clear) .
Renault, Rhodiaceta, and Citroën went back on the 17th and 18th June.
"The strike was over. The workers knew that they had won almost nothing. By prolonging the strike beyond May 30th, and by taking so long to end it, they had affirmed in their own way that they wanted something other than economic benefits. What they had wanted was revolution. But they had been unable to say it,and had no time to make it."
Which may have made for a slightly mournful, but elegant and aphoristic closing to "Enrages..." But even though it was written and published in the months immediately after May 1968, Vienet's sense of the events' position as a part of a globalised, collective reponse to capitalism in crisis, was marked, as outlined in what was the final chapter : Perspectives for World Revolution After the Occupations Movement.
"THE OCCUPATION MOVEMENT was immediately seen throughout the world as an historical event of tremendous importance, and as the beginning of a new, menacing era whose program proclaimed the speedy death of all existing governments. A renewal of internationalism and radicalization of revolutionary tendencies was the response to the troubled stupor it created among the leaders and spokesmen of all ruling classes. The solidarity of the workers expressed itself in a number of ways - the longshoremen of Savone and Antwerp who refused to load goods going to France, the Belgian typesetters who prevented the passage of the stillborn referendum announced by de Gaulle on May 24th by refusing to print the ballots.
Towards the middle of May the Radical Student Alliance in London sent an address to French workers and students, written in French:
"We too have felt the blows of the police clubs and the effects of tear-gas; the betrayals of our so-called leaders are not unknown to us. The sum of these experiences has proved to us the necessity of joining in solidarity with the living struggles against oppressive structures in world society as well as in the universities... But you, comrades, have succeeded in pushing that struggle beyond a questioning of the class nature of the university to a struggle united with the workers which has as its goal the complete capitulation of capitalist society... Together with your comrades in the factories, in the ports, and the offices, you have destroyed the myth of the stability of capitalist Europe, and consequently you have made both the regimes and the bourgeoisie tremble with fear. In the stock markets of Europe the capitalists are trembling, professors and aging technocrats are turning phrases to explain the action of the masses... Comrades, you have reanimated the traditions of 1871 and 1917, you have given international socialism a new force."
The co-ordinating committee of the student strike at Columbia University published a tract in New York at the beginning of June which declared :
For more than two weeks twelve million French workers and students have led a mass general strike against the same conditions which confront us in America... Despite the efforts of the trades union bureaucracies, including the "communist" leadership of the CGT, to moderate the movement and to arrive at a compromise with the employers and the Gaullist government, the workers have voted to pursue the strike until their demands are satisfied... If we win in France it will give new life to the international movement which is already manifesting itself in Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, and even here in the United States. When we launch our own battles here we are helping to create the conditions for a victory in France and everywhere in the world. Their fight is our fight. The workers and students in France are looking to us in America for a response to their first giant step in the battle for a new society."
The barricades and Molotov cocktails of the Berkeley students, the very same who had launched the agitation in the university four years earlier, responded at the end of June. In the middle of May a revolutionary organization had been formed by the Austrian youth around the simple program of "doing the same as in France". At the end of the month occupations of university buildings had taken place in Germany, Stockholm, Brussels, and at the Hornsey Art College in London.
Barricades had gone up in Rome on May 31st. In June the students of Tokyo, always combative and resolved on turning the university district into a "Latin Quarter," occupied their faculties and defended them against the police.
Not even Switzerland was spared: on the 29th and 30th of June, riots broke out in Zurich, where hundreds of demonstrators armed with stones and Molotov cocktails took the major police station by assault. "The violent demonstrations in Zurich," noted Le Monde on July 2nd, "provoked a certain stupor. Numerous Swiss, who believed their country to be immune from the movement of opposition breaking out in Europe, were disturbed in their tranquillity."
MAY 68' COMES TO CROUCH END – Hornsey Art College Occupation, 1968.
TOKYO, JUNE 68’.
The struggle in the modem capitalist countries naturally awakened student agitation against the dictatorships and in "underdeveloped" countries. At the end of May there were violent confrontations in Buenos Aires, Dakar, Madrid, and a student strike in Peru. In June the incidents were extended to Brazil and then to Uruguay (where they culminated in a general strike), to Argentina, and to Turkey (where the universities of Istanbul and Ankara were closed until further notice), and finally to the Congo (where the high-school students demanded the suppression of exams).
The most important of the immediate results of the French movement was the first tremor against the power of the bureaucratic classes of the Yugoslav students occupied the University of Belgrade at the beginning of June.
UNIVERSITY OF BELGRADE, OCCUPIED, JUNE 1968
The students formed Action committees, denounced the bureaucratic ownership of society, demanded authentic self-management in terms of freedom and the abolition of classes, and voted to rename the place Karl Marx University. They addressed themselves to the workers: "We are outraged by the enormous social and economic differences in our society... We are for self-management but against the enrichment of the few at the expense of the working class." Their movement met with great approval among the workers. As at the Sorbonne, "several workers also took the floor at the interminable meeting at the philosophy faculty, where speakers endlessly took turns in the general enthusiasm." (Le Monde, June 7th).
The regime saw itself stalked to death. The demagogic self-criticism and tearful confessions of Tito, who spoke of resigning if he could not meet the just demands that had been made, showed up the weakness and the panic of the Yugoslav bureaucracy. It knows perfectly well that the radical demands of the movement, whatever maneuvers they left open for Tito himself, signaled nothing less than its own liquidation as a ruling class, and the proletarian revolution which is coming back to life, there as elsewhere. The concessions of the bureaucrats were accompanied in classical fashion with whatever dose of repression they could afford, and the usual calumnies which put forth the inverted reality of their ideology: the so-called Communist League thus denounced the "ultra-leftist radicals... eager to destroy both the democratic regime and self-management." Even Le Monde (June 12th) recognized that this was "the most important domestic alert that the regime had had since the war." [Since then the uprising of the Mexican students has surpassed in scale all the other responses to the French occupation movement. Mexico is a country only half-emerged from Latin American underdevelopment.]
France, too, remains in the volcanic chain of the new geography of revolution. Nothing has been settled there. The revolutionary eruption didn't come from an economic crisis, but, on the contrary, helped to create a crisis in the economy. What was attacked head-on in May was a well-functioning capitalist economy, but that economy, once shaken by the negative forces of its historical supersession, has to function less well: it thus becomes more unbearable, and reinforces its "underside," the revolutionary movement which is transforming it. The student milieu has become a permanent stronghold of disorder in French life, and this time it is no longer the disorder of a separated youth. The big bureaucratic machines of working-class integration paid a high price for their victory over the strike: many workers have understood. As for the small leftist groups, which were apparently reinforced (all the more so by their unnecessary disbanding by the police), they are virtually finished. The unobtrusive basket of crabs they constituted was strewn about in the limelight during the strike, but always in retreat.
The perspective of world revolution, when it reappeared in France, not only made up for the long delay of its fifty-year absence, but displayed for this reason many premature aspects. Before the occupation movement crushed the state power confronting it, it accomplished what all the revolutionary movements (except that of 1905) had achieved only afterwards. The armed detachments at the disposal of the government had not been defeated. And nevertheless the seizure of certain buildings and their notorious distribution among different subversive groups could not help but evoke some of the events of Barcelona in the summer of 1936. The state was ignored for the first time in France; this was the first practical critique of Jacobinism, for so long the nightmare of French revolutionary movements, including the Commune. In other words, radically new elements were mixed with the sudden return of the specific characteristics of French revolutions — the barricades in Paris awakening Europe. Just as it was not enough to simply ignore the State, there were certainly no sufficiently clear perspectives. Too few people had a coherent revolutionary theory, and its dissemination among the masses had to overcome extremely unfavorable conditions. Apart from the power of the existing order's spectacular media, there were the counter-revolutionary bureaucracies, which had at that time been unmasked by far too few. Thus no one should be surprised by the many weaknesses of the movement, but rather be amazed at its strength.
Radical theory has been confirmed and tremendously strengthened. It should now make itself known everywhere for what it is, and break all new efforts by the hard-pressed recuperators. The carriers of radical theory had no concessions to make. They must become even more demanding from the position of strength that history has given them. Nothing short of the international power of the workers' councils can satisfy them — they can recognize no revolutionary force other than the councilist organizations which will be formed in every country. The objective conditions for revolution have become visible as soon as the revolution has begun, once again, to speak as an objective power. Now a fire has been lit which will never go out. The occupation movement has ended the sleep of the masters of commodities, and never again shall spectacular society sleep in peace."