The May 1968 Revolution 40 Years Later

EDITORIAL, 2 Jun 2008

#11 | Johan Galtung

I will never forget that day. There was the standard French ritual: barricades, cobblestones, cars, buses even, turned over, tires burning, tear gas, CRS police in full gear, and hordes of students jumping from car to car to get away from the drifting clouds. One sensed 1789-1830-1948-1870/71. And strikes, grève.

But then it changed tonality as a long beautiful May day turned into night. Thousands, ten thousands, walked the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. As we arrived a stentorian voice gave us not marching but sitting orders: form groups of 10-12, sit down in one of the circles, discuss la situation! We did.

We, a Japanese woman–one year later to become my wife–and French of all kinds, discussed the situation: how to use liberté to come closer to égalité and fraternité, completing the betrayed grande révolution. This was not a classical revolution to capture the State and get cabinet posts only. The goal was basic social change in society, all over, everywhere. Nothing less.

And that meant relations between genders and generations, in the family, at school, at work, in society at large, in the world. This was the voice of a massive underswell in society, a movement of tectonic plates that had touched Latin America from 1963, China from 1966 in the idiom of the cultural revolution, now reaching France, from there to spread all over Western Europe and North America, Japan–even Portugal summer 1969–but not crawling under, or jumping over, the wall separating NATO and WTO, from Norway-Soviet Union to Bulgaria-Turkey. Those most in need got least.

Leaders were nowhere. Nor guns, nor bayonets, only a little stone-slinging. They invoked another ally in the struggle to realize those laudable goals: imagination, soon to be scribbled on all walls. Imagination au pouvoir!, give power to creativity.

It covered political decisions, cultural conditioning, police and military force more than economic power. Far beyond classical marxism, even Gramsci, to everything social: less distance, less hierarchy, less formal, more transparency, more shared decisions. The academic discipline was sociology, hated by the Establishment.

In those Place Etoile circles we said tu, not vous.

The formal pronoun yielded, quickly or slowly, from De and Sie to du, from Usted and Lei to tu, in the USA to first name. Leaders all over–ministers more than corporate CEOs–started giving reasons not only orders, listened, reacted, even proacted. Office landscapes started horizontalizing, general assemblies became common. Professors had committees tell them what and how to teach. Positions rotated more than before. The boss for life barking orders from a corner office became a rare species.

And in the background, far, far away, were the killing fields in a poor country of Southeast Asia, with millions of small, poor people callously murdered by “decision-makers” on both sides of the Potomac; in August 1968 to be joined by the brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. By then it was too late. There was a change in the air. What used to be Big Power Politics As Usual, “they are like that”, was now subject to scrutiny. One doesn’t do that kind of thing. After Afghanistan, and serious relapses in Chechnya, Russia may have gotten the point.

The USA not. Empire as usual, insensitive to the rapid decline in legitimacy after May 1968; now crumbling in the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The May 1968 revolution was a success it takes more than 40 years to comprehend. There were processes leading into that month and many would have broken a path through history anyhow. But May 68 became a symbol. A generation, 15-40, was touched for life. They carried a message forward. Not red, not green. Social.

Le nouvel Observateur (12 March 2008) sees the sexual revolution as perhaps “the major heritage of the beautiful month of May”. “General use of contraceptives, the right to sexual pleasure with no duty to love, woman emancipation, couples forming and breaking up, recognition of homosexuality, pornography.” Sexual relations flourish. People meet, often in nature, sense attraction, there is a touch inviting a touching response, there is the continuation outdoors, in a car, a motel room; parts of general trends toward self-determination and equality. Both genders have a right to make advances and to refuse, but then softly, not as if they had faced a threat worse than death. Togetherness at ease comes with rupture at ease, no implicit promise, no forever; maybe serial monogamy, maybe couples together in the same room, maybe changing partners, maybe in triples and quadruples. Not unproblematic.

The two genders no doubt became more equal. More and more saw them as equally good, in all ways. And the USA spearheaded the feminist revolution, with backlash and all. The same happened to the two superpowers, they also became more equal. More and more saw them as equally bad. Many still believed in patriarchy, and many still believed more in one superpower than the other.

But new dividing lines had emerged: a massive parity movement took a stance against any gender discrimination, and a massive peace movement against any superpower aggression. The USA did not spearhead that movement and its empire now is its victim. But be careful you Big, EU, Russia, China, India: you are being watched.

May 1968 was a revolution of the same magnitude as the change from feudalism to democracy; still in search of a name. “May 68”, dear to the French, disregards the beginnings in Latin America and China. In the meantime let us celebrate that history also carries progress in its wake. And new problems, calling for much imagination.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Jun 2008.

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