The 40th anniversary of May ’68 is an occasion to note a certain number of changes that have come about in the intellectual landscape over the last few years, by examining the various ways that philosophers, writers and historians have been for some time reading this key moment in recent French history. In fact the particular historical moment shows the singular ability to hold onto the title of "event", as in "the events of May ’68". More than for most historical facts, the commemoration of May 68 is integral to and prolongs the durable impact that those events have had on French society. The decennial rendez-vous with this memory serve as so many indicators of the ideological metamorphoses of our times. Several books among the publishing avalanche set off by the most recent decade marker take a look at this "history of the history of...", including Le Moment 68: Une histoire contestée by Michelle Zancarine-Fournel, which focuses on the student and worker revolt that serves — or rather the rereading of it serves — as a litmus test of our times.
In the 1970s and 1980s, on the occasion of what was called the "anti-totalitarian shift", a certain number of intellectuals took on as their own the critique of May 68 formulated in real time by Raymond Aron in Révolution Introuvable ("the revolution that cannot be found"). But as has recently been shown by the philosopher Serge Audier in Pensée Anti-68: Essai sur les origines d’une restauration intellectual ("Anti-68 thinking: An essay on the origins of an intellectual Restoration"), Aron was above all concerned about the university and attacked the blockages in Gaullist France, while his self-proclaimed successors a decade later gave the question a decidedly conservative turn.
The rediscovery of the virtues of democracy and civil society by intellectuals eager to put a little distance between themselves and their Marxist training nevertheless could still be read as a continuation of the 68 spirit; the values of May were after all little appreciated by the Communist Party for whom, at the time, the revolution was less important that grasping the reins of the State. But little by little the spontaneity of civil society as vaunted for example by Edgar Morin, Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis (Mai 68 : La Brèche — "The Breach") would give way to various conservative thinkers and an invasive rehabilitation of the State and of the nation.
Nothing astonishing in that the "sixty-eight" heritage would undergo the general shift of the 80s and 90s and go from being a model to an anti-model. The two main actors of this transformation were the historian François Furet (whose reinterpretation of 1789 got rid of the notion of revolution) and the philosopher Marcel Gauchet, whose reflections on the dubious legitimacy of a "policy of human rights" and the risks of democracies getting hijacked grew downright pessimistic. By the time Régis Debray published in 1978 his "Modest Contribution to the Tenth Anniversary", the idea had begun to circulate that the paving stones of May 68 disguised a simple "consumerist alignment" and that all that rebelliousness was a presage of The New Spirit of Capitalism (by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello). A dark legend, fed by sociologists like Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean-Pierre Le Goff, was forming, according to which May 68 was the expression of drift towards narcissism and individualism whose real inheritors are the "liberal-libertarians" and other "bobos".
A STRANGE PASSION
This cultural reaction culminated in the pamphlet by philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (La Pensée 68), published in 1985 and which grouped together under its title practically the whole of intellectual production of the 60s and 70s. Structuralists and poststructuralists alike found themselves accused of "anti-humanism". The concrete utopia of a freer and less hierarchical society which brought students and workers into the streets was really serving to incubate the dreaded spirit of totalitarianism!
This strange passion to get May ’68 out of one’s system included deforming the past. As historians of the period attest, the majority of protagonists skewered by Ferry and Renaut were distantly connected at best with the events of May and their authors. But this sort of caricature was grist for the mill of the right that was reconquering power. It was taken up by Nicolas Sarkozy when he declared, in the Spring of 2007 his intention to "liquidate the heritage of May 68", which lies at the root of the current "intellectual and moral relativism".
This underlying tendency however has been countered in the last few years by progress in historiography, which has given May 68 quite another image than that of an event whose message would be all about a dissolute and untrustworthy generation. This historical renewal is echoed in the renewal of radical thought as evident in the blossoming of books and articles, often by very young authors. It’s as if since the fall of the Wall, the radical left has been forced to redo the basis for its critique of neo-liberalism, but without all the brandishing of arms. On this point May ’68 with its flowers in gun barrels instead of armed struggle may be serving as some sort of guide. Similarly, the collective liberation movements of minorities which to some degree or other rose out of the 60’s help defeat the idea that May ’68 was all about spoiled scions of the bourgeois never wanting to be told no.
No doubt all these criss-crossings are quite stimulating for radical left theorists and explain the effervescence on that end of the spectrum, which contrasts sharply with the dusk-and-shadows ambiance in neo-liberal circles, with their citations from de Tocqueville to Aron. While philosophers like Alain Badiou in France, or Antonio Negri and Giorgio Agamben in Italy, the American Michael Hardt or the Slovenian Slavoj Zizek consitute a new constellation of critical politics, even if at times rather noisy and haphazard, the neo-liberal tradition in France is stuck in its melancholy and declinist amber. When, that is, it is not out-and-out reactionary.