Is History About To Rhyme? Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.
EMMANUEL MACRON will be hoping that Mark Twain was wrong about history. In the French President’s ears, the celebrated American novelist’s famous observation that although history does not repeat itself, it sometimes rhymes, can hardly be reassuring.
Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.
There is, however, one feature of the 2018 situation that differs very greatly from 1968. Fifty years ago, the key strategic priority was to extend the political struggle into all sectors of French society. Today, the priority is to draw the divergent campaigns of students and workers closer together. Or, as the French Left put it: convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles.
That the Left is required to reiterate the most fundamental tenet of collective action: unity is strength; is in many ways symbolic of what was won and lost in the upheavals of May-June 1968.
Crucial to achieving a proper understanding of “68” is accepting that politically it was a colossal failure. Convulsed France may have been by a succession of running street battles between university students and the feared French riot police, mass protest demonstrations, factory occupations and a wave of crippling strikes, but the overwhelming majority of French voters were not persuaded that revolutionary change was necessary. In the snap legislative elections of June 1968, called in response to the tumult in the streets, the government of the day won 353 of 486 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
But, if “68” was not a political revolution, it most certainly heralded revolutionary changes in French society and culture and, thanks to France’s enormous influence on the world’s intellectual and artistic life, our own.
It was in 1968 that the great “metanarratives” of the 20th Century – socialism and communism in particular – began their long, slow fade into the cultural twilight. In the years that followed, the entire modernist project underwent a similar dissolution.
In its place arose a new project – “post-modernism”. The failure of the grand metanarratives to deliver on their promises had encouraged the growth of an all-encompassing scepticism towards any person or party claiming to have a lock on “The Truth”. Indeed, the whole notion that “The Truth” could even be unlocked was subjected to unrelenting challenge. The idea that there might be as many truths as there were people to identify them won widespread philosophical acceptance. That there was just one universal and unchallengeable definition of reality was derided as the thinking of dead, white, males.
With the 1989-91 collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and Russia, the forces of intellectual and cultural divergence gathered even more momentum. Questions of individual identity in a world where all kinds of boundaries were becoming blurred, or dissolving altogether, became increasingly important, and the prospect of maintaining, let alone forging, collective political unity was rendered increasingly problematic.
In what the French situationist philosopher, Guy Debord, dubbed the “society of the spectacle”, however, one crucial feature of the post-modernist condition had become harder and harder to discern. Capitalism, in the absence of its rival metanarratives – socialism and communism – had grown immeasurably stronger in a fast-changing world where, in Karl Marx’s famous phrase, “all that is solid melts into air”.
Capitalist technology’s frightening capacity to re-define humanity’s self-perceptions hid effortlessly in plain sight: its universal presence making it all the more difficult to see. Not without cause did the American literary critic and political philosopher, Fredric Jameson, describe post-modernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”. If everything can be true, then it becomes increasingly difficult to describe anything as false. If late capitalism’s cultural logic gave us post-modernism, then Donald Trump and his “fake news” can only be its logical outcome.
Except, of course, the social and economic consequences of late capitalism are not fake news – they are only too real. No matter how high capitalism’s apologists turn up the static, the blunt facts of joblessness and/or precarious employment; chronic indebtedness; unaffordable housing; rising poverty and in-your-face social inequality continue to constitute the lived experience of a growing percentage of the world’s citizens – even in its wealthiest nations. The society of the spectacle may constantly be driving them apart, but the inescapable reality of their daily lives is, with equal constancy, generating what the old Soviet communists used to call “the objective conditions” for their coming together.
One of the most memorable slogans of the 1968 “revolution that never happened” was the surrealist graffiti Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the paving stones, the beach.) It captured perfectly the widespread feeling, especially among the young, that for all its materialistic “success”, the post-war world was one from which everything sensual and life-affirming had been bled out. The attributes that made them human, made life worth living, had been drained of colour; buried beneath tons of grey concrete; reduced to an unbearable sameness. In order to find the beach, they had first to tear up the paving-stones – and hurl them at the police.
Divergence, in 1968, made perfect psychic sense. But, politically, it made no sense at all. Emancipation, if it is to endure, must be a collective enterprise. The students and workers of 1968 only railed against the capitalism of their time in various – albeit highly imaginative – ways: the point was to change it.
Fifty years later, convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles – is the only slogan that offers any hope of sparking a genuine and enduring revolution.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 May 2018.