50th Anniversary of May 1968, Paris: Memories of an Illusory Revolution

At the time it seemed that Paris had yet again become the center of a world revolution, but in time a quite diffferent legacy has emerged, recalls Diana Johnstone fifty years later.

By Diana Johnstone  Special to Consortium News
in Paris

Nineteen Sixty-Eight began with the Têt offensive, when the Vietnamese national liberation struggle suddenly showed its strength as a military force, though it was eventually beaten back into guerrilla warfare. The images of burning villages and burning children were seared into the consciousness of millions of people around the world. In the United States, Martin Luther King, whose call for an end of the war clearly linked the anti-war cause to the battle for civil rights, was assassinated on April 4.

In France, reactions to the U.S. war in Vietnam, a former French colony, were viscerally linked to the war in Algeria, which was fresh in people’s memories. For those who had supported Algerian independence from France, achieved only six years earlier, the Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence was a natural follow-on.

If anything, the Vietnamese victory was even more clearly just and inevitable. On the other side were a smaller number of diehard colonialists who hated Charles de Gaulle for giving Algeria away and dismantling the French Empire. The youth group “Occident”, rooted mainly in the law faculty in the rue d’Assas, organized commando groups to defend ill-defined “Western values” which they considered under threat.

One evening, to my great surprise, I turned out to be one of those “threats.” As I arrived late to take part in an anti-war panel in Saint Germain en Laye, near Paris, I smiled at a small group of men standing at the entrance who proceeded to knock me flat and bleeding, leaving a few of my teeth loose. That was my informal introduction to “Occident”. This sort of encounter heightened tensions, and leftist groups strengthened their services d’ordre in self-protection.

Such minor incidents concerning Vietnam helped set the mood for the street fights that inflamed the Latin Quarter in the early days of May 1968.

The revolt broke out on May 3 after police entered the sanctuary of the Sorbonne and arrested student leaders protesting the shutdown of the university at suburban Nanterre. I don’t think that at the time many people cared about the problem at Nanterre. But the sight of police occupying the Sorbonne aroused protests, and in the streets, police charged protesters.

Some ran for cover, but many fought back with surprising determination. After several days violent skirmishes grew between groups of students and baton-wielding security policy, the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), which was met with the slogan “CRS SS!”

A State of Siege

Two men protect themselves by crouching behind cars during civil unrest in Paris, 30th May 1968. (Getty free embed).

Within a week the entire Latin Quarter was in a state of siege. May 10 was the “night of the barricades”. I happened to be there, in the streets near the Pantheon, and was struck by what seemed to me a certain mimesis.

All night, students around the Pantheon calmly built barricades, passing the paving stones from hand to hand with the same gestures they had seen in the 16-millimeter films of Vietnamese peasant women rebuilding bombed dikes.

The next day, the streets were cluttered with debris from the police charge. The Latin Quarter was occupied by rows of armed CRS, and students who had been apolitical a few days before wandered in a new landscape, transformed into an oppressed people with an occupation army to overthrow. Was there some latent desire to be like the Vietnamese, who at the time were the object of widespread sympathy and admiration – even adoration?

In between my library research and my part-time work for a movie dubbing studio, I followed those events unroll as closely as I could. I was present at many of the key happenings, the major skirmishes in the Latin Quarter, the orations at the Odéon theatre, the night of the barricades, the big marches, the speech at the Sorbonne of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit on his triumphant return after being expelled to Germany. I rushed to buy every edition of the daily “Action.” Yes, I was there.

But did I understand what it all meant? Hardly. Do I understand now? A little better, I think. But the French May ’68 was too ambiguous and contradictory to be easily understood. I would even venture to say that nobody did, or could, fully understand its meaning because there were so many actors performing out of different motivations, often obscure even to themselves.

I recall overhearing a chic young woman in a shop in Saint Germain des Près remark to the clerk that she had to rush to finish her shopping in order to “get back to making the revolution.”

Paris was nearly the last student population in the world to get into the spirit of the times. The revolt grew when French workers and labor unions joined the students. But such was the mystique of Paris, capital of revolution, that it was only when students in Milan or Berlin heard of the Paris events that they thought something truly momentous was happening. Many set out on pilgrimage for Paris heedless of transport strikes and gasoline shortages, to join the revolution in the Sorbonne.

However it may be interpreted, the massive French revolt of May 1968 quickly became the symbol of an era. The “events”, as they were called at the time, featuring an ephemeral revolution at the Sorbonne and the biggest general strike in French history, momentarily created the illusion of Paris as center of a worldwide revolution.

The Walls That Spoke

The extreme ambiguity of the Paris revolt was expressed in the graffiti slogans that appeared on walls around the city as if by magic. The walls seemed to talk – and indeed that was one of the slogans: “Les murs ont la parole.” It seemed that the walls themselves were announcing a new dispensation: “It is forbidden to forbid,” and in allusion to the paving stones being hurled at police, “Sous les pavés la plage” (under the paving stones the beach). Enjoyment without limits was the dominant message, down with authority of all kinds, down with work, “L’imagination prend le pouvoir” (imagination takes power), “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”

The myth of the spontaneous talking walls overlooked the fact that the most striking slogans were directly inspired by a group of radical libertarian theorists calling themselves the Situationists. Their best known exponents were Guy Debord, author of La Société du Spectacle, and Raoul Vaneigem, author of a “Traité de savoir vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations,” which exhorted the young to total revolt against existing society.

Like other radicals of the period, Situationists considered genuine, non-existent socialism (as opposed to the Soviet variety of “real existing” but false socialism) to be the ultimate goal of social revolution. But their immediate target was “consumer society” and what Debord called “the spectacle society.”

In May ’68, they had the situation of their dreams. Their triumph was fleeting and deeply ironic. The social liberation that ensued paved the way to a far greater alienation in terms of consumerism and commercial spectacle than ever. May ‘68 itself was exactly the opposite of what it seemed at the time.

The hedonistic spirit or “it is forbidden to forbid” was represented by the student rebel who came to personify May ’68, Cohn-Bendit. A news photograph showing him staring impertinently into the face of a helmeted police officer at short range was a perfect image of cheeky defiance of skittish authority. For the media, it was love at first sight, and a love that lasted.

Cohn-Bendit was nicknamed by the media “Dany the Red”. While it may have applied to his hair color, it did not fit his politics, insofar as “red” denotes communist or socialist. While loosely attached to the Anarchist Federation, Cohn-Bendit was much less concerned with liberating the working class from the chains of labor than with freeing the individual from social restraints on personal liberty.

Born in France of German Jewish refugee parents, Daniel chose to retain German citizenship in order to avoid military conscription. Studying sociology at the university of Nanterre, he delighted his fellow students with his colossal nerve. Dany had attitude. He excelled at defying authority. This talent had been fostered in the ultra-progressive Oldenwald boarding school he had attended in Heppenheim, Germany, whose slogan was “Become What You Are.” Its anti-authoritarianism pedagogy had taken on a fresh luster in the 1960s as German authoritarianism came to be blamed for the rise of Hitler, notably by the Frankfurt School philosophers.

In parallel to the political agitation going on against the United States war in Vietnam, Cohn-Bendit introduced an agitation against the authority of the university itself in regard to personal matters, challenging the ban on allowing male students to visit the rooms of girls in student dormitories. It was this incongruous mix of issues that exploded on May 3, 1968.

Workers Go For Wages

Alain Krivine’s Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire(JCR) was perhaps the most conspicuous leftist organization, which played a key role by providing the service d’ordrethat protected the student demonstrators from right-wing provocateurs while preventing clashes with police from going too far. The chief of Paris Police at the time, Maurice Grimaud, later credited himself and Alain Krivine for keeping the war dance within certain bounds.

The leftists wanted to rouse the workers to make the Revolution. But when the workers massively joined the movement by going on strike in the greatest general strike in French history, the Communist-led CGT (General Confederation of Labor) succeeded in leading the strike toward negotiations and wage increases.

For the ultra-lefts, that amounted to a cowardly betrayal by the union leadership. For several years, the most ardent militants, especially the Maoists, tried to relight the flame of revolt by entering factories as ordinary workers.

While scorning the student revolt as petit bourgeois, the Maoists quickly adapted to the mood of revolt, shifting the focus of their Comités de basefrom Vietnam to French society. During the May events, the Comités de Base applied the Maoist theory of creating liberated territories in the periphery, making the revolution in cultural workplaces like schools and libraries. Employees everywhere were going on strike, reorganizing their own work, which often needed it.

Whatever its ideological significance, this tendency of over-managed people to take control of their work lives struck me at the time as the most positive aspect of the May events. A similar aspect was a seemingly spontaneous movement by artists to “serve the people” anonymously.

In the Ecole des Beaux Arts, students produced the posters that symbolized May ’68 even more than the Situationist graffiti. A close friend of mine, who before and after the revolutionary mood of the period strove to make a name for himself as an artist, was overwhelmed and for a while converted by the movement to produce art anonymously, for the pure pleasure of society, without thought of gain or glory.

While the Maoists pursued their cultural revolution and the Trotskyists tried to channel the street battles, political commentators and sociologists flocked to the scene to explain to the rebels what they were rebelling about. It was perhaps all the easier for French students to act out revolution in that they could situate themselves in a long national tradition running from the great revolution of 1789 through 1830 and 1848 to the Paris Commune of 1871. “The Student Commune” was the title of philosopher Edgar Morin’s glowing essay opening the most widely noted of the shelf-load of books that appeared in shops more quickly than the streets could be repaved: La Brèche.

Revolt on the Periphery

While the (CGT) worked to get the workers back on the job before they could be further contaminated, the massive strikes rekindled young intellectuals’ interest in their own working class as a potential “revolutionary subject”. Seen from the vantage point of publisher François Maspéro’s crowded bookstore, La Joie de Lire, in the rue Saint Sévérin, it was clear before May that the contemporary front lines of the world revolution were in the imperialist periphery, in Vietnam or Latin America, and certainly not in France.

But even as it attracted the attention of the world, the May movement looked inward, turning its back on the Third World in its effort to unfold revolution according to national patterns. Thus began the loss of interest in the Third World that soon ruined Maspéro. (He was targeted for “revolutionary” anarchist shop-lifting, in order to punish him for “exploiting” the subjects he published books about, unlike all those other publishers only interested in making money).

It is significant that La Joie de Lire was sold to Nouvelles Frontières, a budget travel agency. The sixties trips to Algeria, Cuba, China and even California in search of revolutionary models gave way to vacations in warm climates, period.

The philosopher Edgar Morin described May ’68 as an “osmosis” occurring between the “existential libertarian exigency” of some and the “planetary politicization” of the others.

The world seemed to be coming together politically when it was in fact falling apart.

The gauchistes were momentarily united by hostility to the French Communist Party. The leadership of the PCF was clearly convinced that revolution in France was a dangerous fantasy in a NATO member state and discretely worked with de Gaulle’s prime minister Georges Pompidou to restore normal order.

The hatred of French intellectuals for the French Communist Party has been an obsession overflowing political categories. Hatred for the PCF came from right, left, and center. A specialist in the matter, Cornelius Castoriadis, writing under the name of Jean-Marc Coudray in La Breche, explained why: the PCF is “neither reformist nor revolutionary”.

Prisoner of its past, the Stalinist bureaucratic apparatus is incapable, in France as almost everywhere, of turning the corner that would allow it in theory to play a new role. Not, certainly, a revolutionary role, but the role of the great modern reformist bureaucracy needed for the functioning of French capitalism, which has been recommended to it for years by volunteer advisors, knowledgeable sociologists, and subtle technicians”, Castoriadis wrote.

‘A New Period in Universal History?’

In 1968, both Maoist revolutionaries and budding technocrats saw the youth revolt as a blessed historic opportunity to snatch the working class from the clutches of the PCF. The PCF needed to be destroyed in order “to make the revolution” – or conversely to modernize French capitalism.

Whatever comes next,” declared Castoriadis, “May ’68 has opened a new period in universal history.”

This extravagant appraisal of the significance of May ’68 was by no means unusual. The exaltation of May’s spontaneity by established intellectuals was a way of celebrating the relegation of the PCF and its bureaucracy to the ashcan of history.

Castoriadis perceived an explosion of creativity, “brilliant, effective and poetic slogans surged from the anonymous crowd.” Teachers were astonished to discover that they knew nothing and their students knew everything. “In a few days, twenty-year olds achieved political understanding and wisdom honest revolutionaries haven’t yet reached after thirty years of militant activity,” he wrote.

Did this stupefying miracle really take place? It was hailed in any case: for, if innocent youth could rise from its tabula rasa and make the revolution, there was obviously no need for a structured organization like the Communist Party.

There was immense joy among intellectuals at discovering a new revolutionary subject close to themselves. Castoriadis announced that in modern societies youth is a category more important than the working class, which has become a dead weight on revolution.

But could spontaneous youth actually make the revolution? Even as he was extolling the glorious “explosion”, Castoriadis pointed to its limits. “If the revolution is nothing but an explosion of a few days or weeks, the established order (know it or not, like it or not) can accommodate itself very well. Even more, contrary to its belief, it has a profound need for it. Historically it is the revolution that permits the world of reaction to survive by transforming itself, by adapting,” he observed. The outcome could be “new forms of oppression better adapted to today’s conditions.”

Indeed, transformation and adaptation ensured that the real economic powers running the world were not seriously disturbed by all this turmoil.

All of this, I readily admit, went right past me at the time. The May events did seem to suggest that sudden, unforeseen changes were possible. That in itself was exhilarating. I watched in some wonderment as the French seemingly decided to make “the revolution”. It was in their tradition, not in mine.

At the same time, I was not happy with May ’68 because the Vietnamese and their struggle were forgotten. Ironically, one reason the French government clamped down so quickly on student activists may have been to prove Paris’ fitness as a neutral and orderly capital for the talks that were opening there between the Americans and the Vietnamese. Nobody paid much attention to those talks, and the war raged on, but in Paris, it was overshadowed by the illusion of an imminent revolution at home.

The Legacy of May ’68

Politically, the May ’68 revolution was rapidly defeated at the polls. The majority of the population turned against the disorder, as is usual in similar cases, especially when no one could see where it was heading. In a snap election in June 1968, the Gaullists won an increased majority, and the French Communist Party won 20% of the vote compared to the 3.9% of votes that went to the only party openly representing the May movement, the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifié).

Nevertheless, both De Gaulle and the Communists were the historic losers. Whatever else it didn’t do, the May ’68 student generation succeeded in discrediting and undermining existing authority, notably the political authority of De Gaulle and the PCF, and indeed authority itself. The illusion was widespread that spontaneity would undermine the ruling class and overcome consumerism and the “spectacle society.”

On the contrary, the result has been the triumph of the “spectacle society”, the reign of images and financial power – the opposite of what May ’68 seemed to promise at the time.

The “sexual liberation” aspect of May ’68 has been exaggerated, as the French were not a puritan people to start with, just discrete. But it helped accelerate an evolution away from the legal imposition of Catholic rigidity, leading to legalization of abortion in 1975.

Many prominent ’68 revolutionaries went on to highly successful careers, especially in communications, evolving into defenders of the liberal Establishment and advocates of humanitarian wars. Cohn-Bendit’s mass media stardom enabled him to convert European Green parties from principled pacifism into support for NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia. For one reason or another, many young people in France today regard May ’68 as the mistaken illusions of their parents.

Since both De Gaulle and the French Communist Party were seen as enemies by the United States, a cui bono suspicion exists (especially among the losers) that May ’68 must have been the result of CIA manipulation. Certainly, the CIA was active against both those forces of resistance to American hegemony and would no doubt have loved to engineer May ’68. It may have tried to nudge things a bit here and there. But engineering such events is a feat beyond the power of even the most ambitious intelligence agency. May ’68 was indeed genuine – but genuinely what?

Diana Johnstone is a political writer, focusing primarily on European politics and Western foreign policy. She received a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and was active in the movement against the Vietnam War. Johnstone was European editor of the U.S. weekly In These Times from 1979 to 1990, and continues to be a correspondent for the publication. She was press officer of the Green group in the European Parliament from 1990 to 1996. Her books include Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary ClintonCounterPunch Books (2016) and Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western DelusionsPluto Press (2002).

46 comments for “50th Anniversary of May 1968, Paris: Memories of an Illusory Revolution

  1. Mild -ly Facetious
    June 2, 2018 at 16:29

    Ms. Johnstone, how exhilarating it must’ve been for you, to’ve witnessed the phenomenal performance of that singular clash of ideologies in post-colonial France. It was a cultural revolution that led to a greater respect for the rights of wage earners; but more than that it made for an attachment of variegated associations that produced the simple unity required to force an ideological and political change in the balance of power in France. —

    The relevance of Cultural History has been obliterated by the powerful force of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
    History and histories have been expunged by the Power of the Here and Now.

    The Now-Century political revolution, this ‘new american century’ conquest of the proletarian class, led by Donald Trump, is a turn back to the age of poor houses and the indigent Labor Force of long begone centuries.

    The Brave New World is upon us — but Thank God for the heroic example of the students and working class in 1968 France that Stood Up For Their Human Rights and for the Dignity of Labor Rights to Just Compensation !

    When will we, as a Nation, stand in solidarity against the Laws of the Ownership Society, the Koch Brothers, and Wall Street Robber Barons, et al. ! !

  2. mike
    June 1, 2018 at 15:12

    June 1st: It seems that every May, a number of scribes of similar persuasion feel compelled to take mouse in hand and deliver long-winded missives regarding the May ’68 “event” only to conclude, again and again, that nothing happened, it was just spoiled youth on a lark, that the revolution had failed. If that is the case, why do those scribes feel the need to remind the rest of us of this, year after year, for fifty years now? Perhaps because it isn’t true.
    One such scribe, neo-liberal conservative and self-styled “public intellectual,” Guy Sorman, took time from his busy thoughts to pen a memoir of his radical days at the Event (BTW: characterizing student protests and general strikes as an event certainly turns it into spectacle) published on May 16 in City Journal. For him, the cause of the hijinx was boredom in the bistros and the dictatorship of ennui. This supposes that Mr. Cohn-Bendit was bored when he provoked Francois Missoffe, Minister of Youth and Swimming Pools, at Nanterre by demanding access to the women’s dormitories. A student strike ensued and the Minister called the police. I think the Event began when the first CRS baton came down on a student’s head, or perhaps later, when the CRS – with batons – entered the Sorbonne, an unprecedented invasion of intellectual life. As for Mr. Cohn-Bendit, can we fault his entrepreneurial eclat; turning his radical chic into a hawkish-Greenie (who could have seen that coming) any more than Mr. Sorman’s transformation to “public intellectual?” A cow kicked over a lantern and the city of Chicago burned to the ground. And what of the cow?
    On Viet Nam as a point of origin, Mr. Sorman had this to say, “And as for Vietnam, we French had good feelings toward the country; we were not very well informed on the nature of the conflict, but if the French army had left in 1954, what in the world were American GIs doing there?” So that couldn’t be a source of ire among student youth. And on Algeria, not a word. No, apparently for Mr. Sorman this was merely a “lifestyle” revolution, resulting happily in male students no longer wearing neckties.
    DJ at least recognizes the significance and relation between Algerian and Vietnamese liberation movements. Yes, they were nationalist, but any post-colonial liberation movement is in essence, nationalist. Ironically, Ho Chi Min was a founder of the PCF and after a long, futile attempt to gain independence from France through politics, he eventually took up arms at home to achieve that goal.
    Algeria achieved independence in 62, and Algerians in France were ghetto-ized. Ex OAS crackpots were still lurking in the shrubbery and De Gaulle tried to stay out of the Cold War. The general strike by workers was achieved without the help or blessing of union leadership just as the students did not ask permission, and both groups, for a brief period, joined together in a common struggle – a struggle against institutions of authority; de Gaulle, CFP, union leadership, Ministers of Youth, chauvinism, police, military and the apparatus of colonial rule and its aftermath all on the vague but exhilarating premise of equality. But what do I know; I wasn’t there.

    (Also see the current issue of Jacobin, almost the entire issue is devoted to May 68, and Kristen Ross’s great book, May ’68 and its Afterlives.)

    • Mild -ly Facetious
      June 2, 2018 at 10:57

      Excellent detail, mike. Much gratitude for the Jacobin tip and the Kristen Ross book.

  3. June 1, 2018 at 09:08

    What stands out in the article? For me, the following quote:

    “On the contrary, the result has been the triumph of the “spectacle society”, the reign of images and financial power – the opposite of what May ’68 seemed to promise at the time.”

    I was a student ten years older than the others in 1968. I never saw their aspirations as noble or serious-just a feel good trip of anti-authoritarianism and self gratification. Still they were good folks and fun to be around.

    Certainly, today we live in a spectacle society and far greater concentration of financial and political power.

  4. Mild -ly Facetious
    June 1, 2018 at 06:16

    “Only one ignorant or intentionally dishonest would make a claim that the Situationists had anything in common with Ayn Rand or her ilk.”

    I, for one, was Totally Ignorant vis-a-vis the Situationists, so I researched and been enlightened. Thank You, John!

    To any and all here likewise unfamiliar with the Situationists, the below links will help.



    – – – – – – An earlier (or near) version of Debord philosophy and/or lifestyle was captured in the writing, and lives of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Lipton, William Carlos Williams, William Boroughs, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg and other BEATNIKs during the late forties to middle sixties. – – – – – –

  5. elmerfudzie
    May 31, 2018 at 16:36

    Pray tell, and what was our chant back then?. My fellow ex-beat nicks, ex-yuppies, ex-yip-pies, ex-dopers and ex-hippies!!! do ya all recall? (I’d rather not) The shout, the clenched fist aimed at the sky, the unwashed masses, saying over and over again, “Mao, Marx, Marcuse!” As ‘ol Tricky Dicky would say, ” they’re stormin’ around and burn-in’ up the books” (yeah man yeah) … God! they were intense times, home address? San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury, our King Swami? Timothy Leary and God was dead! We were the in-crowd, we reveled in, the philosophies; tuning in, and dropping out…fantastic, to (finally) realize that the mushrooms, LSD and psychedelic scenes were a deliberate synthesis, a concoction of, Lucifer’s very own lieutenants- the CIA’s stuffy, crusty, old, geezers, the Dulles Brothers! Wow, this CONSORTIUMNEWS commentator, has gone full circle AND around the entire universe. Man, I didn’t need a rocket or be an astronaut. How did the lyrics to George Harrison’s song go? The Inner light? A partial quote from it; “Without taking a step outdoors You know the whole world.. Without taking a peep out the window…You know the color of the sky. The more you experience, The less you know. The sage wanders without knowing, Sees without looking, Accomplishes without acting” ..end quote. Where in heaven’s name! (I now am a believer) are the experimenters, colorful eccentrics, trouble makers, protesters and insurrectionists of today? They’re the destitute peasants in China, with daily riots that no one ever hears or cares about. This is the stuff of and shows what has become of, all our 60’s energies! a very dead (walking dead) western Occident culture and peoples…

    • Mild -ly Facetious
      June 1, 2018 at 06:34

      Let me take you down
      ‘Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
      Nothing is real
      And nothing to get hung about
      Strawberry Fields forever

      Living is easy with eyes closed
      Misunderstanding all you see
      It’s getting hard to be someone
      But it all works out
      It doesn’t matter much to me

    • Sam F
      June 3, 2018 at 08:41

      I don’t recall careless rebelliousness among my teenage friends at the time. We wanted the truth, and were properly suspicious of established sources without good rationales for a war. We got no explanations, and later saw that this was an anti-colonial revolution. Gradually we saw that the US declared goals of “containment of communism” were fictitious or applied only to oligarchy, but that takes the insights of greater years and education. We were severely mistreated, and thereby saw the wickedness of the opportunist supporters of US oligarchy.

  6. May 31, 2018 at 03:19

    I was also in Paris 1967 through 1968. I was part of a group of American resistors also trying to figure out where in the world was going. We are very active. Good friend got kicked out of the country. When I return to the US, I had to do jail time . I do think We had the best interest of humanity in mind. Gustavo Le Bon with his book, Psychology of crowds, proved again to be extremely obviously accurate. Another book which I believe spoke to the contradictions of the time and the motivations of the students and humanity, was Franz Fanon and his work describing the effect of INFORCED DICTATED REALITY . One last comment,: I believe the seeds of an Authortitarian Society, begin in early childhood.

  7. anastasia
    May 30, 2018 at 22:20

    For most of us back then it was a party, a blast. It was like getting people to listen to people who didn’t know what they were talking about. Were we manipulated. Without doubt. By whom? Who the hell knows.

    • June 1, 2018 at 09:36

      Anastasia, your recollections are what I remembers about the young people at Michigan. Who the hell knows and who cares. They were fun to be around, at least those who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

    • elmerfudzie
      June 1, 2018 at 17:34

      anastasia, there are times, I’d like to walk right through a time machine and go back to a historical period, just before the Dulles Brothers catalysed a cultural upheaval, AKA; project MKUltra. 1959 would suit me just fine. I’d waltz into a breathtakingly large ballroom, Wayne Shanklin’s lyric’s, in the air, sung by Toni Fisher…Such a sentimental fool am I, to visit Bodega Bay CA, and the little school house where Hitchcock created The Birds. It was a traditional man and woman thing, together, fighting off nature’s rebellion…the Birds signified some sort of cultural focal or end point, released just months before that, All American and more violent version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, unfolded- the JFK assassination…after that murder, a satanic darkness fell over the entire Western World and the ensuing madness persists unto this very day…

  8. John
    May 30, 2018 at 17:45

    What May 68 did was to inspire imagination, that a better world is possible.

    Sure, it did not achieve its goals – but it TRIED, and its “goals” were the complete abolition of consumer capitalist society!

    It amazes me that some people will negate the effort of a mass uprising because ONE person they can point at it betrayed it (even though, in their compromise, they are still less evil than the vast majority. Trotskyists, for example, gave us the Neocons and Steve Bannon as their legacy.)

    These same people NEVER have a positive example of “this is what has been shown to work”, they can only nay-say those who seek to overthrow all that is wrong with society, with absolutely no institutional support for doing so, because they did not achieve their goals, that, in this case were ADMITTEDLY impossible ones (Be Realistic – Demand the Impossible). Remember, De Gaulle had to use the threat of the army in order to end the general strikes!

    If one wants to see the legacy of the Situationists, their legacy is very much still around – The Yes Men, Adbusters, Reclaim the Streets, Occupy, Punk Rock, street theatre, etc are all parts of the legacy of the Situationists.

    Paris of May 68 still serves as an inspiration – IT AT LEAST TRIED.

    DJ whines here that it did not focus on Vietnam – yet, by that point, France had pulled out of Vietnam – there was not much that French people could have done to influence America at that point.

    Before anyone demeans the uprising in Paris of May 68, one needs to have an example of ANYTHING that came closer to winning in a developed country in the 20th century.

    • Mild -ly Facetious
      May 31, 2018 at 17:37

      It was, like, the largest acid trip of all time. …


    • mike
      June 1, 2018 at 12:41

      Well said. DJ never offers up an alternative. I think we know why.

  9. TowerofBabel
    May 30, 2018 at 16:36

    Superb writing.

  10. mike k
    May 30, 2018 at 12:25

    The Tragic Sense of Life is a result of a species with so much wonderful promise being destroyed by it’s most evil members, and the good souls within this species of humans being inadequate to prevent this nightmare from happening.

    • mike k
      May 30, 2018 at 12:32

      One night a friend and I took some LSD and went to a performance of Puccini’s opera Tosca. The message of how evil was destroying all that is beautiful and loving penetrated deep into my heart, leaving a sacred wound that has not healed since that evening.

  11. Drew Hunkins
    May 30, 2018 at 12:24

    DJ is always so superb and enlightening beyond words. To fail to read Diana’s trenchant and incredibly insightful essays and columns is to court genuine ignorance.

    Off topic: Over at InformationClearingHouse the great Pepe Escobar has a spectacular piece on his very recent trip to Iran. Do not miss it.

    • mike k
      May 30, 2018 at 12:42

      Yes Drew. Pepe draws a wonderfully intimate picture of life in Iran today.

  12. Mild -ly Facetious
    May 30, 2018 at 09:41

    Diana Johnstone — “Enjoyment without limits was the dominant message, down with authority of all kinds, down with work, “L’imagination prend le pouvoir” (imagination takes power),

    The myth of the spontaneous talking walls overlooked the fact that the most striking slogans were directly inspired by a group of radical libertarian theorists calling themselves the Situationists. Their best known exponents were Guy Debord, author of La Société du Spectacle, and Raoul Vaneigem, author of a “Traité de savoir vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations,” which exhorted the young to total revolt against existing society.”


    “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”
    This existing euphoria was stylishly depicted in the excellent 2003 film, “The Dreamers”.

    ” …inspired by a group of radical libertarian theorists calling themselves the Situationists.”
    Ayn Rand’s philosophy live and on rampant display!

    The film is a great achievement as the recording of actual events and affects that played out as a spontaneous mass insanity.
    The DVD also contains the documentary, “Events in France, May, 1968.”

    • Mild -ly Facetious
      May 30, 2018 at 12:23

      Tories, Ayn Rand and Other Things

      The current Tory regime – known at Nowhere Towers as the Simulated Thatcher Government (STG) – is fixated with shrinking the state. They don’t even try to deny it. If Thatcher herself “believed” in Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, then today’s Tory government is inspired by Ayn Rand’s terrible prose. By the way, it’s widely believed that Thatcher hadn’t actually read any Hayek and her knowledge of his ideas were mediated to her by the child abuser, Sir Keith Joseph and former communist, Sir Alfred Sherman.

      Four years ago, I spotted, what I’d considered to be, traces of Rand’s ‘philosophy’, “Objectivism”, contained in the 2010 Conservative election manifesto. Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell (now a UKIP MP) wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months To Renew Britain. According to the pair, their book was inspired by Objectivism. They gleefully told their readers that some of their ideas had been adopted by Cameron and co.

      The book itself offers unsourced graphs and a lot of badly thought out remedies for a series of problems that the authors claim are caused by the state. One stand out line from the book is “the state is running at capacity” (Carswell and Hannan, 2008: 18). Does the state have a capacity? Is there a stated “capacity” for the state or is that just an empty rhetorical device? It’s a curious line to be sure. The Plan is essentially a manifesto for a nightwatchman state. Think of a land with no infrastructure, rampant crime and endemic corruption and you’re halfway there.

      Rand’s influence can be heard in the language of government ministers: the insistence on “hard work” and the frequent mention of the somewhat vague concept of the “wealth creator” versus the scroungers and layabouts, resonates with the language in any one of Rand’s turgid novels, which cast the rich as downtrodden heroes and pits them against their nemesis: the moochers and looters – the latter being a shorthand for the enemies of unbridled cupidity. A couple of years ago, Bozza wrote an article for The Torygraph which claimed the rich were an “oppressed minority”.

      Trumps despotic drive to destroy the Administrative State and ENRICH the RICH while concurrently weakening collective bargaining rights, dismantle Unions and eliminate Federal Employment (government jobs), and expand the concept of “Right To Work” states is an outright attack on ‘everyday’ Americans. —
      The right wing idea that government spending vis-a-vis We The People is “the problem, not the solution”, as Reagan Declared, is a fundamental/first principle of his political philosophy. His pursuit of “Shrinking the State” does not bode well for the US of A.

    • John
      May 30, 2018 at 17:19

      Outside of the US, “Libertarianism” has NOTHING to do with Ayn Rand, or Murray Rothbard. Only in the US are people so stupid as to think a starving man who needs to sell his time in order to prevent starvation is “free”.

      ACTUAL Libertarianism, which is what DJ is referring to here, is against both Capitalism and the State which is necessary for Capitalism to exist. (ACTUAL Libertarians are socialists. The split between Libertarians and Communists came at the First Socialist Internationale, when Bakunin – correctly – predicted that Marx’s vanguardist plan to achieve Communism would only ever replace the Capitalist Class with the Coordinator Class, without actually ever achieving actual socialism.)

      Only one ignorant or intentionally dishonest would make a claim that the Situationists had anything in common with Ayn Rand or her ilk.

      • Mild -ly Facetious
        May 31, 2018 at 13:11

        John, thank you for your informative knowledge of the Situationists.

        My comment had solely to do with the chaotic atmosphere that permeated Paris in May, 1968.

        The reference to Ayn Rand had to do with her personal passion for hedonistic “free love” and absolutely nothing to do with politics.

        I repeat – – – “This existing euphoric inhibition was stylishly depicted in the excellent 2003 film, The Dreamers”.

        The film and the documentary (historical filmed footage) put on display the the rampant disregard for Order and Decorum that overwhelmed parts of France that month.

  13. Bob Van Noy
    May 30, 2018 at 09:03

    For me the essay by William Pepper sums up the intense feelings at the time. William Pepper is incredibly significant, perhaps more so now, because he is still alive and a first person witness to “our times”. He’s almost like Forrest Gump, in that he was directly involved with the most significant events of our time either as a reporter or as a researcher of the truth. He has been investigating the Murders of the Sixties for a lifetime and he knows the answers.

    I must caution readers that the linked essay is heartbreaking.

    Many thanks to David T. Ratcliff for his essay and web site…


    • Diana
      May 31, 2018 at 06:59

      Thank you, Bob. Heartbreaking indeed, and profound.

  14. Seby
    May 30, 2018 at 08:21

    I went to a 30th celebration of May 68 by a socialist group in my city. Despite, an excellent speech by a visiting Italian activist, who bought up very similar reservations as the author here, the other speakers sprouted the usual clichés (as if they were having a May’ 68 theme party) and also many of the attendees seemed more concerned with the door raffle prize on the night. Yep, the consumer society had been destroyed. Not! 20 years on, the society of the spectacle seems even more pervasive and life threateningly cancerous.

    A great opinion piece, as one always gets from Diana Johnstone. “Probes at understanding”, not pompous and shallow exclamations like those of her self-serving critics.

    Thank you.

  15. mike k
    May 30, 2018 at 07:19

    So the confused revolutions of the 60’s didn’t work. But does that mean that a real revolution is not possible? What about Cuba? Maybe the revolution we need is more inner, and less outer? How would you facilitate a deep change in the minds of a large number of people? That’s our problem. Without that kind of change, nothing good will endure.

    • Bob Van Noy
      May 30, 2018 at 08:21

      mike k, thank you, I have a significant link as a partial answer to your question that I will provide below.

      The great thing about this site is that many regulars have imagined legal and logical ways to correct the Treason that has been our reality for more than Fifty Years. The link shows more options.

      Thank you Diana Johnstone for the brilliant essay; it was painful to recall those times, but necessary…


      • mike k
        May 30, 2018 at 11:46

        Thanks for the link, Bob. I have spent a lot of time absorbing the findings of climate scientists. The matter of acting to head off the disaster they are predicting is the nut of the problem. Those in the pockets of industry giants, like our senators are not going to do it. How to awaken the public is our key problem. The same propaganda that is impelling us to nuclear war is putting us to sleep about climate change. Behind it all is the oligarchs who must be displaced if any of this is to change. We have not come up with any way to do this in time to prevent the awful world that is bearing down on us with increasing speed. This inner problem of awakening minds is the key to our salvation from ourselves. We need to solve it pronto – or else!

  16. john wilson
    May 30, 2018 at 04:41

    The real difference between 68 and now is that back then the surveillance capabilities of the state were minimal, whereas now the state can track your every move and practically look up your rsole to see what you had for breakfast ! Demonstrators today are watched in detail and facial recognition cameras make it possible to have an all seeing eye. Once a demonstrator has come into the vision of any of these devices, he/she goes on a list the purpose of which is to let them know they can be taken out any time the state wants. Drones, cameras phones etc etc, being a demonstrator these days doesn’t have the anonymity as it did back in 68 and even being a passive non violent demonstrator doesn’t exclude you from ‘the list’ . Perhaps a real revolution is called for to rid the nations of these devices of control

    • hyperbola
      May 30, 2018 at 12:30

      Banks Deeply Involved in FBI-Coordinated Suppression of “Terrorist” Occupy Wall Street

      If you had any doubts of the veracity of former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson’s depiction of the financial crisis as a “quiet coup,” a pre-Christmas release of FBI documents should put them to rest. While I linked to a discussion of the results of the Partnership for Civil Justice’s FOIA of FBI materials on Occupy Wall Street, I was remiss in not writing them up earlier. Both the Partnership for Civil Justice and Naomi Wolf at the Guardian (hat tip Scott A) provide good overviews. The PCJ also published the FBI documents it obtained.

      If you’ve been following the story of the official response to Occupy Wall Street, it was apparent that the 17 city paramilitary crackdown was coordinated; it came out later that the Department of Homeland Security was the nexus of that operation. The deep FBI involvement is a new and ugly addition to this picture. Several impressions emerge from reading the summaries and dipping into the FBI documents:…..

  17. John A
    May 30, 2018 at 02:25

    One architecturally sad legacy of 68 was the end of the Parisian hallmark cobbled streets, as shown in the photo of the guys crouching behind the Peugeot. As the cobblestones had been used as ammunition to throw at the police etc., TPB decided to remove them all. I always get nostalgic about them when I see old French films.

    • mike
      June 1, 2018 at 12:43

      Yes, and Haussmann widened the boulevards.

  18. J. Decker
    May 29, 2018 at 23:20

    “All of this, I readily admit, went right past me at the time”

    Exactly how I feel after reading this.

  19. Abe
    May 29, 2018 at 21:50

    “Macron’s invocation of European culture serves to win support for his reactionary project among the educated middle class, which once styled itself as progressive but has now, in the face of growing international and social conflicts, discovered its love for the nation, military and a strong state. Nobody embodies this transformation better than Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who served at the Goethe University as Macron’s stooge.

    “In the 1970s, Cohn-Bendit and his close friend and protégé Joschka Fischer turned their backs on street battles and set out on ‘the long march through the institutions’ that would lead them into high positions within the state. Fischer became the first Green minister in a state government in 1985 and German foreign minister in 1998. In this role, he paved the way for the first foreign intervention by the German army since World War II and supported Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s anti-working class Agenda 2010.

    “Cohn-Bendit, who is both a German and French citizen, made a career for himself in the Greens on both sides of the Rhine. He was a member of the European Parliament for twenty years, leading the Green group until 2014. In this role, he backed wars in the Middle East and North Africa, and authored a manifesto in defence of the European Union (EU) together with the former Liberal prime minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt.

    “At the Goethe University, Cohn-Bendit supplied Macron with the prompts to develop his vision of Europe as a militarily strong power. He said it was “fantastic” that the French and German armies were conducting a joint military intervention in Mali, despite their different traditions. Europe must go further in this direction, he added. […]

    “Cohn-Bendit repeatedly addressed controversial topics and attempted to push Macron even further to the right. One example was his call for the EU to play a greater role in the suppression of the Catalan independence movement. ‘Why isn’t Europe waking up? The separatist leaders are getting a hearing—but why does Europe not act?’ the French ex-leftist demanded to know.”

    French president Macron and ex-left Cohn-Bendit advocate a militarily strong Europe at Frankfurt Book Fair
    By Marianne Arens

  20. David Smith
    May 29, 2018 at 20:42

    Amazing article, thank you Diana Johnstone. To the question genuinely what was May 1968? It was genuinely part of its time, there was truly “Something In The Air”. I was a ten year old first world peasant, hearing ” I Am The Walrus” for the first time, and everything changed. Not that everything was great after that, nothing was, but there was a fissure flash of consciousness, whose value can be seen in the bad press it gets today.

    • Oakland Pete
      May 29, 2018 at 21:48

      Did it occur to you that you are reading one more in a series from her with a purpose? Those kids, so impatient, they want everything their way right now, blah, blah. Were you ever a child and hear this from a parent? Did you think that when you were a parent you would remember and not be like that? Yeah, all of us said that. And few of us remember – including Diana Johnstone. I do. Those kids read the best of their parent’s generation, and the one before, and before, and learned. They learned from Breton, Luxemburg, Marcuse, and applied it well. Individual personalities, even if they were leaders, are too easy a target to use to discredit what they did. Like Cohn-Bendit. How many of any generation has done this? Revolutions save us from ourselves, reflective of a tension in an oppressive culture that finally bursts, and will always depend on the spirit of youth. I respect and encourage that. DJ is a tired old fart who I mistakenly gave a free pass when she slandered others recently. If this is her mission in life, to attack those who make revolutions, she deserves all she gets. May 68 almost succeeded. It respected anti-colonial and anti-imperialist resistance, in spite of what DJ implies. And it was beautiful.

      • May 30, 2018 at 01:35

        Oakland Pete – you’re about as predictable, tired and boring as trolls get it is sad to say. CN is a top flight site and certainly deserves better than what your trolling is providing. It speaks volumes that you can’t read a retrospective effort as an attempt to better understand the significance of May 68 without doing your usual troll dance suggesting that engaging in such thoughtful questioning implies Diana J’s “mission in life” is to “attack those who make revolutions.” What pure slapstick BS on your part, but an excellent example of using the (“4Ds: Deny / Disrupt / Degrade / Deceive”) – right out of the troll manual.


        I linked above to said troll manual (that was part of the Snowden documents) so you can give yourself a much needed refresher. Your shtick is old and stale.

        PS – I loved the “free pass” you “recently” gave DJ when she was so terribly inconsiderate as to call out your imperialist war monger buddies posing as “leftists.” “Free pass?” That’s priceless.

        • Den Lille Abe
          May 30, 2018 at 03:19

          Thank you, well and eloquent said.

        • Sam F
          May 30, 2018 at 20:32

          I wondered at times what the article would conclude, but did not see it as OP did. Such articles might ask the questions explicitly so that readers would see the purpose of the inquiry, which was not merely to spoil the spirit of ’68. It is difficult to express disappointment with “the illusion of an imminent revolution at home” without seeming to disparage the spirit of young activists, but CJ does not do that except for Cohn-Bendit. Perhaps the article could clarify that after 1975 there was no (similar) war for activists to fight, the young were building families and careers through the 1980s, when the US imperial wars were kept largely secret, with the collusion of the Reaganite mass media. So the assimilation of an activist generation was due not to their hypocrisy but to “new forms of oppression” developed by the “world of reaction”, which Castoriadis thought was enabled by any form of activism.

      • Abe
        May 30, 2018 at 14:59

        Thanks for your comment, Gary.

        Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is an intelligence agency of the government and armed forces of the United Kingdom.

        In 2013, GCHQ received considerable media attention when the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency was in the process of collecting all online and telephone data in the UK. Snowden’s revelations began a spate of ongoing disclosures of global surveillance and manipulation.

        NSA files from the Snowden archive published by Glenn Greenwald reveal details about GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) unit, which uses “dirty trick” tactics to covertly manipulate and control online communities.

        JTRIG document: “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”

        In 2017, officials from the UK and Israel made an unprecedented confirmation of the close relationship between the GCHQ and Israeli intelligence services.

        Robert Hannigan, outgoing Director-General of the GCHQ, revealed for the first time that his organization has a “strong partnership with our Israeli counterparts in signals intelligence.” He claimed the relationship “is protecting people from terrorism… not only in the UK and Israel but in many other countries.”

        Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to the UK, commented on the close relationship between British and Israeli intelligence agencies. During remarks at a Conservative Friends of Israel reception, Regev opined: “I have no doubt the cooperation between our two democracies is saving British lives.”

        Hannigan added that GCHQ was “building on an excellent cyber relationship with a range of Israeli bodies and the remarkable cyber industry in Be’er Sheva.”

        The IDF’s most important signal intelligence–gathering installation is the Urim SIGINT Base, a part of Unit 8200, located in the Negev desert approximately 30 km from Be’er Sheva.

        Snowden revealed how Unit 8200 receives raw, unfiltered data of U.S. citizens, as part of a secret agreement with the U.S. National Security Agency.

        After his departure from GCHQ, Hannigan joined BlueVoyant, formerly BlueteamGlobal, a cybersecurity services firm. Its senior leadership team at BlueStreamGlobal. later BlueVoyant, includes Ron Feler, formerly Deputy Commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 8200, and Gad Goldstein, who served as a division head in the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet, in the rank equivalent to Major General. The Boad of Directors includes BlueteamGlobal’s board of directors will includes Nadav Zafrir, former Commander of the IDF’s Unit 8200.

        In addition to their purported cybersecurity activities, private companies have enormous access and potential to promote deception operations.

        • May 30, 2018 at 21:45

          Abe – I have to admit I’ve sadly reached the point where I can’t help but see the trolls coming a mile away. Although I won’t waste my time sparring with them regarding their intentionally nonsense posts, I must say sometimes I simply can’t help myself in calling out their BS. I always find myself asking the same question when I encounter the ever present trolls, which is:

          “what kind of a person shoves his/her head up the arse of power, and then so situated finds the view and the ambiance to their liking?”

          I’ve never really understood what kind of mindset someone would have to have to actually “play dumber” than they actually are “for a living” no less, all with a goal of disrupting free speech.

          Thanks for that breakdown of the GCHQ and related relationships. Very interesting connections.

    • Abe
      May 29, 2018 at 22:39

      How many of any generation has done this?

      Querfront für den Krieg

      Reiner Kröhnert nails Daniel Cohn-Bendit on Weltnetz TV

Comments are closed.