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Monday, July 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Days of ’68

May ’68 and its Afterlives by Kristin Ross. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, 238 pages, $27.50.

The police are above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not there: “Move along, there’s nothing to see.” The police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people, workers, citizens.
– Jacques Ranciere, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

For me, May ’68 started when I was hit with a police club walking out of an apartment. It was one of the first demos in the Latin Quarter. The cops were charging….I was in high school….I was peacefully pursuing my studies. All of a sudden I started going to meetings, to assemblies.
– The activist Yann, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

…[A] professor was walking out of a book store…and he passed by a group of CRS [Companies republicaines de securite, the French riot police] who immediately began to beat him. Their chief must have noticed that the man [was] someone more respectable, and he ordered his men to stop. One of them yelled out, “But chief, he was carrying books!”
– The activist Nicolas, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

I still remember it (to confirm the cliche) as if it were yesterday. The phone rang; it was a family friend calling to tell us that there had been a coup in Greece, and that a military junta had taken power. I was 16 and a high-school junior in New York City. Within six months, Che Guevara would be executed in Bolivia; within another nine months, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would be assassinated in the United States. By the fall of 1968, Paris, Prague, and Morningside Heights – as well as, of course, Athens and the city of my birth, Thessaloniki – would become spaces of circulation (and of restriction) defined by their respective police presences.

I am now 51 years old, and, as each year passes, the more incomprehensible the period of my coming of political age becomes to me – but not because of my own failures of memory or (even worse, in my opinion) of subsequent repudiation(s) of the engagements of my youth. Quite the opposite, what I find increasingly disorienting is the rewriting of history – consistently conservative and invariably self-serving – that has made of the Sixties and Seventies a kind of generational “happening” that gravitates between theater of the absurd and Grand Guignol.

I know that history is written by the victors, but this is ridiculous. There are a lot of us, after all, who are still around – or, more to the point, who haven’t become members of the European parliament, ministers in “socialist” western European governments, media magnates, or darlings of a “human-rights” establishment that has apparently become NATO’s (or, more accurately, Washington’s) civilian auxiliary. I’m all for historical revisionism; it’s historical denial that I find grotesque. Indeed, if there’s a comparable phenomenon to this obliteration of recent history, it is the Holocaust-denial that has become so popular among certain other elements of the (admittedly much more extreme) right. (In making comparisons to the Holocaust, by the way, I am not suggesting an equivalence in the historical magnitude of that tragedy with what occurred in May ’68; I am only pointing to a process of historical denial – actually, rejection is probably a more accurate description – that I think the two events share in common.)

The difference, of course, is that the Sixties-deniers, if I may use that phrase, are all former radicals themselves. What is one to make of Serge July, Bernard Kouchner, and, most painfully, Regis Debray and Daniel Cohn-Bendit – not to mention those avatars of renunciatory reaction, the nouveaux philosophes? (David Horowitz is the best-known American representative of this pathology, and also the most extreme, having made a very long personal pilgrimage, it seems, from far left to far right.) Why this unseemly – and oh so conspicuous – need (obsession) to renounce (and to denounce)? These questions, and several others, are answered by Kristin Ross in her important new book, May ’68 and its Afterlives.

Ross undertakes her task with great passion and engagement, but articulately and always in measured tones, with – and this is the most important point – extensive historical evidence to support her. Indeed, this latter issue is critical. It seems that the notion of historical evidence is foreign to the Sixties-deniers. Actually, Ross astutely observes that, their arguments notwithstanding (especially those pseudo-historical screeds of the nouveaux philosophes), the Sixties-deniers – or ex-gauchistes, as she calls them – have systematically excluded history from their discourse, replacing, and debilitating, it with the profoundly problematic methodologies of (auto)biography and sociology.

“The police conception of history”

Monsieur le doyen, je ne suis pas un flic. [I am not a cop, Dean, sir.]
– Henri Lefebvre, when asked for a list of politically disruptive students in his classes, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives (the “translation” is mine)

Following Jacques Ranciere, Ross postulates the methodological, analytical, and, ultimately, ideological identity between the police and sociology through a brilliant formulation that she refers to as “the police conception of history,” which is also the title of her first chapter. She begins this chapter by quoting the sociologist Wolf Lepenies, who, after a talk Ross gave on May ’68, could not contain himself: “But nothing happened in France in ’68. Institutions didn’t change, the university didn’t change, conditions for workers didn’t change – nothing happened….’68 was really Prague, and brought down the Berlin Wall” (p. 19).

We will leave aside for the moment that the Prague Spring occurred in 1968 and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – which means that the Soviet Winter that turned Prague into a Siberian prisonhouse lasted for 21 years, that is, half of the entire duration of the Cold War. Let us also leave aside the thoroughly ahistorical (antihistorical?) notion that Prague ’68 was Prague ’89; has Lepenies really forgotten that extraordinarily – and, as it would turn out, poignantly and heartachingly – resonant phrase, “socialism with a human face”? What strikes Ross above all is that “this was an interpretation [she] had not encountered before in such a succinct form” – namely, that “Nothing happened in France, and everything happened in Prague” (p.19). She could have added: Thus is history written.

Or not written, or unwritten – which are exactly her points. “Is the sociologist’s relation to the past that of the police to the present?” Ross asks, not at all rhetorically (p.23). She continues:

Even the most discriminating sociology returns us back to a habitus, a way of being, a social grounding or set of determinations that confirm, in the final accounting, that things could not have happened in any other way, that things could not have been any different. Thus, any singularity of experience – and any way in which individuals produce meaning that attempts to capture that singularity – is cancelled out in the process. The police make sure that a properly functional social order functions properly – in this sense they put into practice the discourse of normative sociology. (p.23)

This is actually a concise explanation of the complicity of the academy (including much of its ostensibly “radical” element) in what she aptly calls the “confiscation” of May ’68 (and of the era in general) by the forces of (the new world) order.

And so, the answer to her question – Is the sociologist’s relation to the past that of the police to the present? – is, of course, self-evident. How can it be otherwise? Sociology is not social history; that in fact is its point. It is frozen in time, oblivious to the diachronic. Sociology indeed represents the quintessence of the synchronic. For it, society is caught in amber, or at least isolated from any historical context (and, more to the point, continuity), perceived simply as an “objective” (in reality, reified) process in which subjectivity – what Ross calls the “singularity of experience” and the attempt to “produce meaning that…capture[s] that singularity” – is either impossible or delusional.

Political desire, or the pleasure of the autonomous political body

Undoubtedly, each person lived May in his own way….Was I aware of what has been called the “Festival of May”? Yes, if it’s a festival to demonstrate every day or almost every day, or to believe it at last possible to change the world, to share with others that hope, and from day to day to live in that kind of lightness of being….
– Martine Storti, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

On May 6, I was at Denfert-Rochereau. From there I went to St. Germain-des-Pres. Lots of people had transistors. It was wonderful. It was instant information, and everyone could work out his own personal strategy. I felt that the individual was not a sheep in the flock. He was thinking….Basically, it was whatever each one worked out in his own mind in terms of his own temperament and convictions. There was of course a collective spirit, but there were no leaders. Each person was independent. Listening to the transistor, I had the feeling that I was running the game.
– Evelyne Sullerot, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

Something ungraspable, something difficult to grasp, that there was during the strike and the occupation. Something in the midst of happening, something is happening: just that, the feeling of that….That something should come from outside, to meet you, to surprise you, to take you away, to raise you up, to undo you, it’s there, it’s now, we are beside it, we are with it, we feel the pressure and we create it, everything is happening, everything can happen, it’s the present, and the world empties itself and fills up again, and the walls pull back, they are transparent, and they pull back, they separate, they fade away, they leave room, and it’s now and now and now….Love can create this feeling, or art; it is rare to feel it in society….But during the strike we could touch it with our fingers, rub our hands across its back.
– Leslie Kaplan, from the novel, Depuis maintenant: Miss Nobody Knows, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

The problem is that it’s all about subjectivity. It’s consciousness that transforms revolt into revolution, and false consciousness (or worse, bad faith) that betrays them both (which is where Sartre met Marx – and Stalin murdered a century). One of the most fundamental, and shameless, moral “confiscations” by the right from the left during the last century and a half has in fact been the principle of individualism, whose conceptual integrity has been thoroughly debased by its appropriators. Ross quotes Fredric Jameson’s definition of the genuinely “collective experience” as “a new level of being,” as opposed to the “desperate individualisms” of the capitalist ethic (p. 102). “Desperate individualisms” is an astute description of the psychological ecology of that part of the world that I inhabit as a resident of Manhattan, at the heart of the contemporary imperial order – and which I assume I have in common with Ross, who teaches at New York University. It also brings us back directly to the issues of desire and fulfillment in the body politic.

Just as I can never forget the morning the colonels’ junta seized power in Greece, I can never forget the evening that I heard it had fallen, seven years later. To this day, I’ve never had a comparable feeling of utter – pure – elation. I was with many other people – in fact, at a meeting, at NYU, of an antidictatorial group. The joy, the excitement, the anticipation, was palpable, indeed, highly charged; needless to say, all of us were hugging and kissing, continually, but the moment I remember above all was when I embraced a woman who, just a few minutes before, had been a persistent foe. I was a new leftist, while she was a member of the youth wing of the KKE (Kommounistiko Komma Elladas, the Communist Party of Greece). Barricaded behind our respective sectarianisms, we had battled endlessly – until that second. She smiled at me, and I believe her smile was real; mine certainly was.

Was it love? Not between her and me. What it was actually was the desire in each of us in that room, individually, for “[t]hat something…com[ing] from outside, to meet you, to surprise you, to take you away, to raise you up, to undo you,” each of us absolutely convinced that “we could touch it with our fingers, rub our hands across its back.” It was the eroticism of the political, that rare moment when freedom ceases to be an intellectual (and therefore debatable) concept and becomes a sensation, a physical (and therefore real) grasp on the present and, it is always thought, on the future (such being the definition of revolutionary romanticism). It is, in every way, the exact opposite of those “desperate individualisms” that, as the term implies, are, at best, onanistic satisfactions, and, at worst – and almost always – pathetic passions mired in fear, self-interest, and anomie.

If that last description sounds intimately familiar, welcome to the imperium, circa 2002. Along with virtually everyone else in the world, I was thrilled and moved by the collapse of the Berlin Wall – or, more accurately, by the demise of Ulbrichtism. I was not so thrilled a couple of years later, however, when Boris Yeltsin replaced Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Soviet Union, and then promptly replaced the Soviet Union with…actually, I’m not sure we know the final answer to that yet.

I do know, however, that “We won the Cold War.” Still, walking south on Third Avenue on September 11, 2001, sometime after about eleven o’clock in the morning, having been evacuated from my office at a major multinational firm (a competitor of Andersen, of Enron infamy), along with other millions of “victors” of the Forty Years War against the Evil Empire, not having been able to communicate with my wife except for an e-mail I got from her saying that she was leaving her office 20 blocks closer to the World Trade Center (to volunteer at a local hospital), and fighting that extraordinary human river of people, who it seemed were all flowing uptown as I was desperately trying to buck the tide and head downtown to my apartment, looking at this surging, polychromatic, polyethnic, polynational mass of human beings and thinking of all the images that had accumulated in my mind over the last half-century – shots and scenes of dispossession, exodus, flight, mayhem, and a thousand variations on and permutations of ethnic cleansing and population exchanges, against the ever-so-ubiquitous background of camps of all kinds, refugee and transit and detention and prison and concentration and, of course, the ultimate in this fashion, death camps – I could only wonder at what it was, exactly, that We, the privileged survivors of this crusade that had defined the life of two generations, had “won.”

Smoke, ashes, and thousands more dead (in New York, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and, lest we forget, Afghanistan) is, of course, the short answer – and, oh yes, another crusade, this time against the “Axis of Evil.” After all, order – of the new-world variety or otherwise – is impossible without the requisite barbarians against which we must continually define ourselves, since, clearly, we are incapable of any fundamental self-definition that does not entail enemies and imperial self-assertions.

Nothing starts from nothing

I discovered fascism. Or rather, that there were fascists, that the species didn’t die off with the defeat of the Axis and the liberation of France….I believed that fascists, absolute evil, had disappeared from reality. That their existence was as incongruous as that of distant ghosts. I met young people who defended the Vichy regime, professors too, as well as active fascists….This was the time of the return of de Gaulle, the beginnings of the far-right machinations in Algeria.
– Pierre Goldmann, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

Before May, my activities were mostly of the anti-fascist type…I knew nothing about the composition of classes…the exploitation workers underwent….It was fairly common at the time to be engaged first of all on the anticolonialist and then the anti-imperialist front.
– The activist Alain, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

In 1968, I had already been political – since the war in Algeria….It’s what led me to become aware of political problems. From that moment on I made a kind of choice – it was relatively clear that I wasn’t going to be on the side of the right, the police, and the OAS [Organisation de l’armee secrete, the far-right French terrorist group opposed to Algerian independence].
– The activist Rene, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

I learned how to be a militant in the Comite Vietnam du base [CVB] of the twentieth arrondissement where I lived. I sold Le Courrier du Vietnam, discovering street militantism….It’s in the CVB of my neighborhood that I met Jean-Claude, the future father of my son, Fabien.
– Daniele Leon, quoted in May ’68 and its Afterlives

Which leads us back to May ’68 and Ross’s book. One of Ross’s fundamental objectives is to recover not only the confiscated memory of that time, but – more to the point – its actual historical truth, which has been so willfully distorted over the last decades. The most egregious falsehood has, of course, been that of spontaneous combustion – or, more precisely, the notion of simply a “generational” explosion aimed at antiquated social       stru(i)ctures that needed to be (and subsequently were) blown away as part of a more general project of “belated modernization.” Anyone who has studied this period – let alone actually lived through it – knows how specious, and transparently ideological, this argument is. Nevertheless, it has become the dominant rationale for everything that occurred. Anyone who witnessed even a small part of the events (in France, but also in Italy, West Germany, Mexico, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Uruguay, China, the United States, and, yes, Greece) during that time can only be left speechless by the breathtaking shamelessness of such insistent historical denial.

As Ross shows, however, history is not a rite of passage but a continuous engagement, not a discrete initiation but a neverending definition of self, and of one’s perceptions of the Other, and of the equally endless relationship between the two. In the event, several shibboleths need to be retired, once and for all.

First of all, the Sixties did not just “happen”; they were actually preceded by the Fifties – and, oh yes, the Forties and Thirties. Specifically, in France, there was something called the war in Algeria and, immediately prior, Dienbienphu and, before that, the communist left’s systematic isolation from political power because of the Cold War and, before that, occupation and resistance – and Vichy – and, immediately before that, the Popular Front (la vie est a nous and all that sort of thing, for which, as Camus famously said, Vichy was the social revenge) and, before that…well, you get the idea. The point is obvious, or should be: there is no history without history.

Students and other human beings
There was in fact a conscious process of (self-) mobilization and resistance and definition that took place for years prior to May ’68, and this held true not only for Paris, but for Morningside Heights and Prague and Mexico City. More important, the revolt – and it was undoubtedly a revolt, in every sense of the word – had little to do with “student” concerns per se and everything to do with the life of women and men as a whole in contemporary society, whether they found themselves in the so-called First, Second, or Third Worlds. May ’68, in short – and everything it stands for morally, socially, and politically – was an expression of a catholic, and therefore self-aggregating and self-concentrating, refusal of a global system that was widely perceived to be insufferable.

That means that many different kinds of people were involved in its articulation: workers, professionals, trade-unionists, administrators, political activists, artists and intellectuals – yes, even students – but, most important of all, people, and nations, of color. Everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten now, but, back then, people were mobilized by civil rights in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and resistance to Western imperialism in Vietnam and Algeria and Iran and Guatemala and the Congo, as well as by the extraordinary moral authority of the human symbols of all these discrete resistances throughout the world that nevertheless took on a global resonance – Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, assassinated; Mandela in South Africa, imprisoned for life; Lumumba in the Congo, assassinated; Che in Bolivia, executed; Ho in Vietnam, still leading his people, still resisting, still trying to liberate and unite his nation after decades of false and broken promises and agreements by the West. May ’68 was about a lot of things, but it was not about students or even educational reform – and it was certainly not about abstract, ludicrous, anodyne, and eminently cooptable notions of a “counter-culture” and “individual freedom.”

And since we’re on the subject of the global dimensions (extensions, reflections, refractions, echoes and reverberations) of May ’68, I think this is the proper place to register the needful disgust and indignation at a contemporary “confiscation” of another of the left’s principles that is as outrageous and shameless as the denial of its recent history. How did “globalization” become a right-wing mantra? Last time I looked, I thought it was leftists who had been historically pilloried as “rootless cosmopolitans,” unpatriotic (regardless of patria) internationalists, and, generally, execrable traitors to their own nations (wherever they were) and contemptible embracers of everything foreign, alien, and not of the respective heartland.

Today, however, opposition to the notion of a world regime ruled by the reigning hegemon in Washington, aided by his proconsuls in London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, Riyadh, Tokyo, the UN secretariat, and the IMF – and given invaluable ideological dispensation by the eleemosynary noblesse oblige of Western NGOs, which have become “organic” in the most Gramscian sense of the term – makes one an “anti-globalist.” When did this happen, and why? (If one wants to know what authentic internationalism is all about, all one need do is examine both the original and sustaining impulses, sentiments, and social consciousness that came together in May ’68.)

May ’68 and its Afterlives is an extremely valuable book for many reasons, but especially because it actively resists the historical amnesia that seems to have settled over the West. It is also a poignant and, in the end, exceedingly moving book that allows the nameless and innumerable soixante-huitards who did not become rich and famous, who did not seek notoriety through public recantations, who simply went on with their lives as best and decently as they could, to come out of historical hiding, as it were, and finally speak their minds, clearly and without apology.

T.J. Clark has said about Guy Debord that his “‘writing’…was not done by someone who was only or essentially a writer…any more than he was an ‘artist,’ ‘filmmaker,’ ‘politician,’ or even ‘revolutionary.’” In fact, Clark concludes, “All of these identities, Debord never tired of telling us, are what now stand in the way of the activities they once pointed to” (see Clark’s introduction to Guy Debord by Anselm Jappe, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, p. viii).

The ex-gauchistes walked away from the barricades (if they were ever behind them) and assumed identities reeking of quotation marks: “writers,” “artists,” “filmmakers,” “politicians,” and, of course, completely brazen “revolutionaries” of a thoroughly self-aggrandizing and incoherent “revolution” (a counter-revolution, in actuality). As Clark implies so brilliantly, liberation means shedding identities that are so false that they accuse us innately with their irony and detachment; it means reconstructing our place (or, at the very least, relocating our consciousness) in the world (we share with everyone else), for the world (as we envision it), and, above all, against the world (as it is) – which brings us back one last time to May ’68. In the end, if anyone really wonders “what happened” at that time, the simplest and most direct answer is that language – and, much more important, people’s lives – was finally liberated from quotation marks.

When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.
– Chinese proverb written on a wall of the Conservatoire de Musique, Paris, May ’68, quoted in The Beginning of the End edited by Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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