A Secret Heliotropism of May 1968


“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined or spiritual things could exist.  Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt. [. . .] They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning, and fortitude.  They have a retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.  As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history.” — Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History1

“Groping for the lost thread, humanity will rediscover itself.” — Rapaces [Raptors] and François Lonchampt, Leaflet, Paris, March 20062

L’avenir nous appartient (The future belongs to us). — Graffiti, Paris March 20063

Nostalgia can be reassuring, but it is always illusory — in its false sense of security as much as in its retrogressive narrative.  The process of commemoration makes sense only when a purposeful desire to retread history resonates with the present, as if we are bound by “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one.”4

Each successive decade after the events of May 1968 renewed an effort to banish the awareness of their real historical meaning: the past is denied in the very explanations of it that seek to offer an assurance that cannot be.  Such was also the case with many of the fortieth anniversary commemorations of May ’68 that took place in 2008, disconnecting the past from the present and remaking it into a commodity for nostalgia.  Nevertheless, the obligatory self-congratulating testimonies of wondrous left-to-right journeys were still haunted by the thought that what happened across France in May ’68 could happen again.  However much some seek to eternalize the present, history demands otherwise.

The true significance of May ’68 does not lie in the events themselves; it can only be grasped in their connection with the present.  If we are to develop our understanding of that connection, which alone allows us to make sense of our present, perhaps once more we’ll find ourselves at a historical moment of ‘rupture’ that breaks the continuum of what passes for history, which as Marx famously observed ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’

How such a nightmare is perpetuated to prevent its rupture may be observed in the mass media’s comparison of May ’68 with the anti-CPE (Contrat Première Embauche) revolt that shook France in April 2006.  Writing in the Guardian, David Drake argued:

Whereas May ’68 was a movement which aspired to make people’s dreams a reality, the current protests against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE) are an attempt to bury a law which millions believe will worsen the employment prospects of young people even further.  . . .  In May 1968 the future looked rosy and full of possibilities; today it looks dark and foreboding.  In May 1968, the State was the target of the students’ wrath; today’s young demonstrators look to the state to find ways of delivering them from a precarious and uncertain future.  In May 1968, the students rallied behind the call “Let’s ask for the impossible”.  In 2006, backing the demand for the withdrawal of the CPE, it has become “Everything we are asking for is possible”5

Similarly, Adam Sage of the Times noted: “Then, the country exploded in search of a better future.  Now, instead of revolution, demonstrators want pragmatism and stability — to stop things from getting worse.”6  Steven Erlanger, writing in the New York Times, went one better: “Today, students worried about finding jobs and losing state benefits are marching through the streets demanding that nothing change at all.”7

It is a job of commentators of the corporate media to misrepresent events, especially those seeking to challenge their own society and hence challenge their roles within it, but an assertion that the participants of the movement of 2006 sought “the state to deliver them from a precarious and uncertain future,” instead of challenging it, is particularly extraordinary.  The anti-CPE movement, which defeated a piece of legislation that made it easier to fire new employees, a legislation to which the French ruling class had publicly committed itself, was if nothing else an electric burst of class struggle against the capitalist state illuminating its own visibility with lightening intensity across Europe.

The 2006 movement, like so many recent struggles against neoliberalism, can indeed be seen as ‘defensive,’ as far as the issues that catalyzed it are concerned.  However, the successful anti-CPE movement was much more than a mere protest against the measures intended to ‘modernize’ the French labor market.  In the movement of 2006, there was the recognition that life as it is lived day to day is only bearable because we are aware that it could be different, that this present state of things is not ‘given’ and is not invulnerable.  To be sure, in the events of May ’68 it was possible to glimpse ‘the marvelous’ — so beloved by the Surrealists — in the interruption of the quotidian banality of life shaped by consumer capitalism,8 but this moment was also glimpsed in the revolt against neoliberal austerity measures in 2006 — and everywhere in between.  Beneath the paving stones the beach.

What is striking about almost all the commentaries revisiting May ’68 is the absence of any real understanding of history: it is as if the events themselves ‘happened’ (somehow, for some reason) but bear no relation to — and have no bearing on — anything before or since, except as a nostalgic quotation used to mark the present with irony.  That is a sign of our times — an epoch of capitalism frequently defined as ‘postmodern,’ which found many of its ideological explanations in the disillusion and resignation of certain thinkers in the years after 1968.  However, for us, it remains crucial to recognize an unfinished and ongoing project in May ’68 and its legacy in order to make sense of the present and go beyond it.

The imposition of political measures such as the CPE offering the capitalist class a more ‘flexible,’ efficient model of precarious and disposable wage slaves underlines the structural metamorphoses of the global capitalist economy in response to the seismic shocks generated by the worker and student revolts of the 1960s and 70s, of which May ’68 was the high point.  Class struggle, class conflict, after all, works both ways.  As David Harvey has noted in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, the neoliberal turn of capitalism in the last three decades is capital’s class war from above, using the weapon of what Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” to put down the long sixties’ upsurge of class struggle from below.  The ‘defensive’ nature of the movement of 2006 — like the 1995 strikes that forced the Juppé government to drop its neoliberal reform — cannot be dismissed as a ‘retreat’ or an attempt to ‘hang onto’ the past.  The movement imposed its own demands based on its own needs and won.  To quote from a participant account in the 2006 movement:

Anyone who knows anything knows that if they get away with this, it’ll be extended to all workers, as has happened in Germany.  At the same time, there are many workers who are on short-term contracts far worse than the CPE.  The CPE’s just a little straw — but, for a lot of people, it’s the last one.  And, without wishing to make a simplistic equivalent, there have been many uprisings that have begun from fairly small beginnings (May ’68, for example, partly began against university dormitories being segregated according to gender).9

This essay began with an attempt to define May 1968 in historical terms against the general view of it as a reference point of nostalgic mimesis, which has us believe that May ’68 was a glorious failure and all subsequent major revolts are failed copies of it, failures to imitate the failure as it were.  May ’68 did not ‘fail,’ however, because its animating force was not, and cannot be, confined to a particular space-time.  It is wherever the exploited and oppressed resist their condition and envision, however incipiently, a different world.  As a piece of graffiti commented at the time of the 2006 movement (tellingly in English, a direct appropriation of those written on the walls of Seattle in November 1999): We are winning. The spirit of May ’68 keeps coming back to the present to settle the score of history.

1  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (London: Pimlico 1999), p.246.

2  DOCUMENTS from the Anti-CPE Uprising in France (February-April 2006), <bopsecrets.org/recent/france2006.documents.htm>.

3 GRAFFITI from the Anti-CPE Uprising in France (February-April 2006), <bopsecrets.org/recent/france2006.graffiti.htm>.

4  Benjamin, ibid. p.244.

5  David Drake, “France 2006 Is Not May 1968,” Guardian, April 6, 2006.

6  Adam Sage, “Spirit of 1968 Is Invoked on Streets of Sarkozy’s France to Demand Stability,” The Times, May 3, 2008.

7 Steven Erlanger, “Barricades of May ’68 Still Divide the French,” New York Times, April 29 2008.

8 One of the greatest victories of that movement was, as Ben Trott rightly argued, the social battles waged and won by myriad different social forces from below.  The Marcusian ‘eros effect’ of the sixties, which overwhelmed the old society’s boundaries of ‘order’ and its inherited morality, cannot be ignored.  But it should not be overestimated.  Whilst the appetite of May ’68 was very much a libidinous, Dionysian one, its sad recuperation in institutionalized identity politics and corporate ‘diversity’ policies is everywhere in evidence.  It remains a task of all future movements to try and reclaim the emancipatory impulses of May ’68 and reawaken their subversive quality: the ‘normalizing’ or domesticating of sexual freedom, feminism, Black Power, and gay liberation is as much a defeat as it is a victory.

9 “All Quiet on the French Front:The Situation in France Now — March 26th 2006” (last updated: April 12th 2006).

Christian Garland — BA Philosophy and Politics (UEA), MA Social and Political Thought (Sussex) — has research interests that include the Frankfurt School, heterodox Marxism(s) and the autonomist and anarchist movements, on which he has published papers and review essays.  He intends to return to PhD studies some time in the future.