Mitch, I agree with much of your article but not the tone. I am not sure why you choose to present the May Events so negatively. Is it disappointed illusions?
I was there and participated actively in everything, including the riots and general assemblies, marches, and even an attempt to burn down the stock exchange. I was chased by both the police and the CGT but luckily I was a good sprinter. I am sure I shared many of the illusions of the moment although I have a rather skeptical temperament. Still, I did not argue that the working class as a whole was ready for revolution in what I wrote at the time. I was aware that only a minority of workers participated. To reduce that minority, as you seem to, to a dozen members of the JCR is quite wrong. Not many students either wanted to join that organization we considered dogmatic and old fashioned. We dismissed it as a “groupuscule."
I recall hearing workers speak out at the general assembly of the Sorbonne and I met some on the barricades. I believe I sang the Internationale with them, assembled on the roof of the Renault factory at Boulogne Billancourt, although it’s been a long time and perhaps we just yelled back and forth. I recall marching beside many people who looked like workers, including one plump Spanish maid who shouted “De Gaulle Asesino!” while the rest of us shouted “De Gaulle Assassin!” Still, the general conclusion that the workers were not ready for revolution stands and I think I knew that at the time. But of course revolutions are not always made by majorities. To believe that this was what Benjamin called a “messianic moment” you did not have to do a poll. So I dismiss the idea that the demonstrators had no revolutionary intention simply because conditions were unfavorable to success. I don’t believe that many of the people in the streets were thinking this was a dress rehearsal and not the real thing. The comparison with 1905 was the compensatory myth of the failure.
There is something else. Ultimately, the general strike was such a startling event that it is difficult to dismiss it as an ordinary union struggle for higher wages even if in the end that is what it became. Are you perhaps reacting to exaggerations in the evaluation of worker participation? Deflating exaggerated claims is useful but the situation was certainly more complicated. There were sociological studies at the time that confirm that workers’ motivations were related at least partially to non-economic issues, to the humiliation they suffered as a class, to alienation, and traditional socialist aspirations.
You say that France could have modernized without May, like the US. The US did not have a thousand years of aristocratic culture to overcome. Even today the French have not completely overcome it. I don’t think the United States experience is relevant. This is the dispensable revolution argument. De Tocqueville explained that the French Revolution was unnecessary as the monarchy was already modernizing. No doubt we could have done without the American Revolution. After all the Canadians have ended up pretty much like us without a revolution. But this sort of alternative history usually has a conservative agenda behind it which I know is not your case.
The fact that capitalism modernized after the Events is made much of and not only by you. But of course it did! Why wouldn’t a vigorous capitalist system seize on opportunities for ideological renewal and reform? That doesn’t mean that somehow the Events were “co-opted,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Even my French father-in-law knew how things work and he was completely apolitical. He once told me they had to have revolutions in France because the country was so conservative. To reverse Lampedusa’s witticism, “Everything must remain the same, so that everything can change.”
I am quite skeptical of the notion that the government manipulated the movement by not shooting protesters, or that they were afraid of shooting their own kids. I think it much more plausible that the government was afraid of a backlash. They already got a big one on May 13 (the general strike!) and shooting protesters might really have provoked a revolution.
The government’s problem was to maintain an appearance of legitimacy even though all the ministries and associated institutions were occupied with the exception of the police and army. As for the protesters, you should credit them with intelligence for not killing cops rather than claiming they were just play acting. I had an American friend, an ex-marine, whose wife was injured in one of the first demonstrations. He had a gun and I spent a whole night arguing with him about why he shouldn’t use it. I am sure there were other similar arguments going on throughout the city. Like the government, we did not want to elevate the level of violence since we were all appealing to the same audience, the French population. And we were pretty sure that audience did not like blood in the streets.
I also disagree with your interpretation of the workers sweeping and cleaning the equipment once they occupied their factory. You seem to think this means they lacked the good old anarchist spirit of sabotage. But more plausibly, they too were aware of the audience and wanted to affirm their seriousness and ability to protect resources that serve the whole country. To sabotage the factory would prove that only the bosses were committed to public service, that the workers were irresponsible children having a tantrum.
Once behind the barricades I saw some foreigners breaking the window of a fancy clothing store. Students rushed up from their work on the barricade and drove them off. French students had no desire for their movement to be reduced to a struggle over shirts and pants. They wanted to control its meaning as a political movement. Perhaps all this is hard to believe in an America where burning down your own local grocery store and gas station and carrying off a stolen television have become marks of protest.
Your most important argument is that no one actually prepared or carried out a revolutionary insurrection. This is undoubtedly true. If the students did not occupy the Senate I suspect this is because they realized that they were in no position to overthrow the state and, furthermore, that this was not the real seat of power in any case. Instead they occupied the Odeon Theatre, across the street. Overthrowing the French state would have required seizing control of essential services and the media for that purpose; the strike with occupation was not sufficient. What was required was leadership by armed commandos prepared to destroy civil order and to deprive the authorities of access to services such as the telephone and electricity. A successful appeal to the conscript army, confined to barracks during the Events, would have had to follow. This is what Trotsky did in the October Revolution but there was no Trotsky in France in 1968.
The PCF occupied the place of a revolutionary party capable of organizing an insurrection without actually being such a party. On this I agree with you completely. But keep in mind that many of us feared that such an insurrection would lead precisely where it led in Russia, to a bureaucratic dictatorship. We hoped an alternative way of overthrowing the state would emerge but we had no clear idea what it would be. And of course no such alternative emerged. It is also true as you say that the destruction of the party has been disorienting for workers in France who are now left under the exclusive influence of the mass media. That has had terrible consequences, witness the rise of the FN.
The significance of the May Events is not to be found in the question of state power. Like other recent movements such as Occupy, it changed the discourse in the public sphere. May changed people’s expectations in their social life and their utopian hopes. To the extent that those hopes exist in France today they are no longer identified with a foreign country, a model, as they were before 1968. That represents a huge advance for a country in which the Communist Party came out of World War II as a major ideological and political force. In opposition to Soviet practice, the movement revived the idea of self-management, councils, as a democratic basis for socialism. We can no longer believe that a government can manage socialism the way capitalists manage capitalism. Another striking originality of the Events was the mobilization of the middle strata around a critical perspective on their own work. (I provide documentation on this unfortunately little discussed aspect in the May Events Archive). These things give me hope that human beings are capable of progressive change.
We do agree on one thing: it seems Marcuse was right in denying that workers in advanced capitalism are revolutionary. At least he was right for his time and ours although perhaps too sweeping in his generalization. Some workers surely did have a revolutionary spirit, but not enough. I was with Marcuse at the beginning of the Events. We went together to meet the Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks who had just arrived at the Lutetia hotel. He told the delegate sent to talk with us not to count on the American working class to end the war. The delegate nodded silently. He already knew the score.