May ’68: what’s relevant after 50 years?

Fifty years after the events of May ’68 it may be worth reflecting on their relevance to contemporary circumstances: what’s changed, what’s the same, and what inspiration could we acquire? What led me to ask these questions was the memory of 10 years ago, as a post-graduate student, taking part in a series of seminars organised between the philosophy and politics departments at Staffordshire University, to reflect on the events at the then 40th anniversary. Having just just revisited a review of the events by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, written to mark the same anniversary, I am struck by two particular points of his analysis: his conception of communism, and his view that the events opened the possibility of there being a “political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other.” Taken together, these two points could inaugurate something of value.

Let me start by attempting to get past the use of the ‘c’ word. Badiou is a communist, and communism is a dirty word in the UK – far more than it is in France. As soon as it is mentioned images of Stalinist repression, excessive state control, and bread queues are conjured up. This is nowhere close to what Badiou means by communism. For one thing his idea of communism is one where “we are not doomed to lives programmed by the constraints of the State”; instead, he’s in favour of “the withering away of the State”. No, rather than being something that most people in the UK would shun, his Communist Hypothesis, as he calls it, is something that could unite and rejuvenate left of centre politics: his communism is “the politics of emancipation”, a politics that simply aims for freedom “from the law of profit and private interest”; it is a politics which believes both that the “Party-form, like that of the Socialist State, is longer suitable”, but which, nevertheless, is revolutionary in the face of “an utterly cynical capitalism”.

So having, hopefully, at least mitigated the worst of the potential ‘commuphobias’, let’s move on to his forty-year review of May ’68. Badiou suggests that there were four “quite heterogeneous” dimensions to these events. Three of these (that the events were primarily a revolt by school and university students, that there was “the biggest general strike in the whole of French history”, and it brought about a radical change in the moral, sexual and cultural climate of the country) are obvious, well discussed, and arguably only of historical interest. However, he suggests a fourth dimension, the most important, that is more forward looking. The events in France, he argues, inaugurated a “search for a new conception of politics”. Protesting students and striking trade unionists, for example, found themselves on the same side of the protests, but struggled at first to communicate with each other. There existed a mutual distrust.

In overcoming these barriers there was a forced break-away from the ‘old language of politics’, a language that was heavy with such terms as ‘the working class’ and ‘the proletariat’; there was a forced review of how politics was organised and the sites of power within a strong political-party system; and there developed an obsession with the question ‘What is politics?’ As a result, students and trade-unionists found their mutual distrust evaporating, and that a “sort of local fusion was taking place”. They “agreed to get together to organize joint meetings”. This heralded “the process of the Union of the Left” and a decade (1968 to 1978) of intense politics in France. Admittedly this union and political action was repressed with the election of Mitterrand, an event that “seemed to impose a return to the classical model”, but it does indicate what is possible if we “realize that all politics is organized, and that the most difficult question is probably that of what type of organization we need”.

How is all this relevant to our contemporary situation? Well I take hope from Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis as a form of language capable of bringing about a generalised union of the Left. Whether we regard ourselves as being members of either the Green or Red factions of the Left, we have some conception of the type of society we want to bring about. Whether this conception is egalitarian in the traditional sense of being focused on the social, economic and ethical relations between our fellow humans across the world, or whether these relations are expanded to include those with non-human life and our natural environment, this vision will only come about through our emancipation from Capitalism, our obsession with economic growth and wealth, and the liberal illusion of the primacy of individualism. Freedom from the law of profit and private interest is as vital to the Green conception politics as it is to the more traditional left conceptions.

I also take hope from the possibility of there being an intense period of political activity as the result of a generalised union of the Left, a union brought about by all parties and factions being prepared to question the political language they use, the constraints imposed by the way they currently organise themselves, and by constantly asking the question ‘What is politics?’

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