Relive Without Dead Time

FIFTY YEARS AFTER the fact, do the events of May 1968 in France still matter? Today the poetic graffiti slogans scribbled near impromptu barricades in Paris’s Latin Quarter—-“All power to the imagination”; “Workers of all countries, enjoy!”—are considered quintessential expressions of generational defiance. But in our own surreal and unpredictable political moment, it can be tough to see what relevance faded memories of an ecstatic European youth revolt have to offer.

Around the turn of the millennium, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, May 68 was alive to me in a way I suspect it isn’t to young people today. I was fascinated by the way the 1960s in general, and May 68 in particular, were frequently deployed—that is to say, remembered—in order to denigrate or suppress political action in the present. We were supposedly living after the end of history, and protest of any kind was dismissed as risible nostalgia. After the 1999 WTO meetings were shut down in Seattle, Thomas Friedman heaped scorn on “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.” Such was the wisdom of the age.

Within intellectual milieus, the dismissal of allegedly démodé forms of dissent was subtler. As an undergraduate navigating academia’s postmodern precincts, I was informed that May 68 in France was a turning point, the catalyst for a pivot away from mass demonstrations toward “deconstruction.” The introductions to literary theory I read credited the events of May ’68 with transforming protesters into “anti-Marxists” and “post-structuralists.” Terry Eagleton, in his contribution to the genre, told a similar story:

Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968. Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was likely to beat you over the head for doing so. The student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse.

When I first read these words, I didn’t fully grasp that Eagleton was in fact sympathetic to left politics and the concepts of “totalizing” thinkers like Karl Marx. (In fact, I had no idea what the “left” was, and my instructors derided Marx as one of many discredited peddlers of “metanarratives”—no further discussion needed.) Nevertheless, I noted his underlying skepticism: “Post-structuralism became a convenient way of evading such political questions altogether.” Given the radical pretenses of those engaging in high theory, something didn’t quite add up. My attempt to resolve this contradiction led me to Kristin Ross’s 2002 book, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, soon after it was published.

The litany of famous last names I expected to find in Ross’s account—Derrida, Foucault, Cixous, Deleuze, and Lyotard—barely makes an appearance. Instead, she shows that within France, May ’68 was mobilized by a very different group of intellectuals. The New Philosophers, as men including André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner, Alain Finkielkraut, and Bernard-Henri Lévy were known, failed to make much of a mark on American university seminars, but they were unavoidable in their home country, building wildly successful careers in print and on television by renouncing their youthful folly and denouncing Marxism and “the imbecilic masochism of third-worldism,” as Bruckner phrased it. The flipside of their sanctimonious condemnations of left-wing “barbarity” (all utopian impulses contain “seeds of the Gulag,” they said) was smug commendations of European “civilization” and the status quo.

Historical remembering is always a contested process, a combination of both active recollection and willful forgetting. Grounding their claims to authority in their firsthand experience of May 68, the New Philosophers paradoxically mythologized and maligned the occasion, which had to be significant enough to merit a profound rejection of its “excesses.” Their monopolization of the period’s memory enforced a kind of amnesia in popular discourse, which Ross aims to disrupt. May ’68 and Its Afterlives argues that, far from being a single isolated month, May and its events must be seen in the context of a growing awareness of—and resistance to—imperialism and colonialism, connected to the end of the Algerian War and the deadly morass of Vietnam. The rebellion was not, in fact, a misguided revolt against all forms of authority in favor of individual, anarchic freedom, but a mass insurrection that ultimately saw nine million people from all walks of life go on strike, their rebellion spreading beyond urban Paris deep into the countryside (hardly, in other words, a straightforward “youth” or “generational” rebellion). Rejecting political leaders and structures of representation, citizens insisted on more direct forms of engagement, precipitating a profound crisis—especially after police violence further galvanized the public. Student rebels refused to protest simply as students (they did not demand better schools but a different society), and workers ceased to act merely as laborers seeking better wages. Ross argues that the unsettling of social categories and established hierarchies was one of the most profound aspects of the protests, and something that utterly confounded the authorities. In those heady days, the usual distinction between intellectual and manual work, between thinking and acting, broke down; by becoming the media’s sanctioned experts on the unrest, the New Philosophers reasserted the divide. They alone could speak to what had transpired.

Though recast as a hedonistic outburst, May 68, Ross insists, was as much about equality as freedom. She shows that this egalitarian element was later repressed, because it could not be as easily metabolized by the modernizing capitalist order as self-expression and thrill seeking. But Ross refuses to extract any easy lessons; she highlights the messy, multifaceted truth of a moment seen through millions of eyes. She’s probably correct that there aren’t any clear dicta to be extracted from that legendary interlude. And yet her study offers, at minimum, a warning to today’s aspiring militants. History, it seems fair to say, has begun again—Marx’s metanarratives are finding a new, eager audience, and young people are flocking leftward. May 68 matters because it reminds us that there will always be a struggle over how we understand political events, their complexity downplayed and collective power denied—sometimes by those who profess to be, or to have been, allies. The least we can be is prepared for those who seek to stop the clock of progress by disparaging protest as child’s play.

Astra Taylor’s new book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone (Metropolitan Books), will be published in 2019.