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May ’68: A multitude of ideas

Latest update : 2008-05-14

There is no such thing as a single May '68 ideology, says the philosopher Serge Audier in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Forty years on, the events of May ’68 still ignite passions among the French people. President Nicolas Sarkozy, for one, did not shy away from brandishing the spectre of a legacy he believes it is time to “liquidate”. Why is it that May ’68 still inspires debate?

Serge Audier: First of all, there are political reasons. President Sarkozy made this the focus of his presidential speech at Bercy in 2007. He was trying to pin down an explanation for social and economic difficulties. A second accusation is linked to what some believe are the cultural consequences of May ’68. According to this view, many current difficulties – such as the crisis in our schools – are rooted in this period and the way events unfolded.

All these aspects helped capture a segment of the electorate that feels threatened by the changes engendered by globalisation. Building on this, the right plays on a so-called “betrayal of the left,” whereby May ’68 supposedly distracted left-wing parties from the real needs of the people.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a proliferation of essays critical of May ’68. In them, the left is not only associated with certain horrors of the 20th century, but also accused of having produced, via May ’68, the opposite of what it stood for.

Henri Guaino, special advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, is not one to hide his sympathies for “neo-republican” intellectuals like Régis Debray, one of the biggest critics of May ’68. His contention is as follows: May ’68 is at the root of the present-day crisis.

Critics of May ’68 often talk of “sixty-eight thought”, described as subversive, harmful and dangerous, supposedly put forward by intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu, among others. In your book, you show that, far from supporting the events, these figures actually distanced themselves from them.

SA: Firstly, there was never really “sixty-eight thought”. It is true that many French authors were influential through their critical works, however, this does not suffice to blame them for events they did not take part in and hardly even supported.

The 1985 book “La Pensée 68” [or "Sixty-Eight Thought", published in English as "French Philosophy of the Sixties"), written by former education minister Luc Ferry and philosopher Alain Renault – whose positions would later evolve – contributed to the spread of the idea that May ’68 entailed the death of humanism and the triumph of individualism.

However, nothing can prove that the authors usually referred to were the movement’s “intellectual fathers”. When looking at the biographies of some of them, we soon notice that the situation is far more complex. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, ultimately spoke of a “failed revolution” that sparked a reactionary counter-attack. All in all, the movement seemed utopian to him. As for Jacques Derrida, he was wary of spontaneity. As he put it in an interview: “I was not a sixty-eighter.” Roland Barthes was critical of the riots and Claude Lévi-Strauss literally detested them. One exception was Gilles Deleuze in Lyon.

Thus, there was no school of thought we may associate with May ’68, but an extraordinary variety of groups linked to the emergence of support for third-world countries and a common rejection of the Vietnam War.

Of course, May ’68 was not merely about obtaining mixed residences at Nanterre University.

SA: One of the specificities of May ’68 – and one that is often forgotten – is that France experienced the largest general strike in its history, culminating in a full-blown regime crisis. Yet, people generally put the emphasis on the call for changes in moral values. One must not forget that the Gaullist regime appeared well established at the time, despite electoral setbacks in 1965 and 1967. There was therefore a strong political dimension to the events.

A thinker like Raymond Aron, while known for the critical stance toward May ’68 adopted in his book “The Elusive Revolution”, nonetheless wrote about the need for “participation”. More of a liberal than a Gaullist, Aron believed aspirations for forms of democratisation at university or in the workplace ought to be taken seriously. He openly spoke about easing hierarchical relationships and more transparent communication. 

Overall, we may notice a growing rejection of the Sixties that goes well beyond France. Indeed, in your book, you hint at a relationship between neo-conservatism in the USA and anti-68 reaction in France. 

S.A.: We must be careful not to associate “Sarkozysm” and American neo-conservatism! However, our president is indeed fascinated by the USA.

The neo-conservative movement is rooted in the critique of the Sixties, a decade condemned for valuing relativism, promoting extravagant hedonism and undermining the work ethic. These are the classic arguments drawn upon by neo-conservative authors, such as Irving Kristol. Starting in the '70s, a discourse hostile toward the Sixties gathered momentum, building on the conviction that fear had gripped middle America, along with disapproval of movements deemed to be decadent.

Debate has also surfaced in Europe. In Germany, we may point to the controversy surrounding past activities of former Foreign Affairs Minister Joschka Fischer. His role in radical student movements came under much scrutiny in a country where memories of terrorism under the Red Army Faction are still fresh.

In Italy, several influential right-leaning writers, such as Marcello Veneziani, have accused the Sixties of unleashing a hedonistic, libertarian and individualistic revolution that paved the way for unbridled and amoral capitalism. The argument put forward is always the same: those who took part in May ’68 have in fact given birth to the opposite of what they proclaimed.

However, the rest of Europe has not experienced the kind of “group fire” witnessed in France. Here, May ’68 is the object of routine onslaughts. It is made responsible for both the Americanisation of France and the spread of narrow-minded consumerism. In this case, the fact that the movement was primarily inspired by democratic aspirations is simply omitted.

Date created : 2008-04-27