40 years ago

Thinking back on, and thinking about writing on, the “good old days” of ’68. May in fact finish a little essay before the end of May when it will of course be too late. Maybe keep it for the 5oth anniversary? News has it that in France alone over one hundred books dealing with May 68 have come out this spring. Why add to them?

I am rereading right now a little book by Régis Debray, published in 1978, long out of print in France (unless they reprint it this May) and never translated into English, with the ironic title: Modeste contribution aux discours et cérémonies officielles du dixième anniversaire. Debray sat in prison in South America, awaiting possible execution or life in jail, during the heady days of the Parisian May “revolution,” incarcerated for having actually put his shoulder to the revolutionary wheel by joining the Che’s (by then) doomed struggle for an actual revolution. His view of the “évènements” ten years later was untinged by any “ancien combattant” nostalgia, and he very cooly interpreted ’68 as the hinge-moment when an old-fashioned, conservative agrarian society (where the reigning bourgeoisie found itself politically and ideologically way behind the logic of its own economic development) was forced to open up and allow the country to update its various conduits so as to bring the capitalist machinery up to industrial and post-industrial speed. Which was done.

Also thinking about a piece by Timothy Garton-Ash in the current Guardian; he is meditating on 68 and its reversed number 89 ‚ which in terms of “revolution” may be the more important date. Below, a paragraph from his essay; you can read the full version here.

Politically, 89 changed far more. The Warsaw and Prague springs of 1968 ended in defeat; the Paris, Rome and Berlin springs ended in partial restorations, or only incremental change. Probably the largest street demo in Paris, on May 30 1968, was a manifestation of the political right, which the French electorate then returned to power for another decade. In West Germany, some of the spirit of 1968 flowed more successfully into Willy Brandt’s reformist social democracy. Everywhere in the west, capitalism survived, reformed itself, and prospered. The events of 1989, by contrast, ended communism in Europe, the Soviet empire, the division of Germany, and an ideological and geopolitical struggle – the cold war – that had shaped world politics for half a century. It was, in its geopolitical results, as big as 1945 or 1914. By comparison, 68 was a molehill.

And meanwhile Le Monde, a good newspaper in serious trouble, is trying to attract subscribers with the following image — ah! nostalgie quand tu nous tiens!

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  1. Nicole Peyrafitte says:

    On Tuesday Mai 13th “Là bas si j’y suis”, Daniel Mermet’s excellent radio show on France Inter, had a very good episode on 68 with François Cusset and Daniel BenSaid titled: 1968 Fins et Suites
    follow the link above to get to listen to it.

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