May 1968 explosion and Cohn-Bendit's exaggerated role

In the first of a series of articles Jack Conrad looks back at the events in France 40 years ago

In the aftermath of World War II a new generation of paid persuaders were brought to the front rank: eg, Raymond Aron, John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell and James Burnham. Capitalism’s discredited and all too recent past had to be guiltily hidden, explained away or turned into other: colonialism, mass unemployment, zoological racism, fascism and appeasement. With philanthropic help courtesy of the CIA - including personnel, money and coordination - they invented the cold war ideology of anti-communism and organised, crisis-free capitalism. A classic case of the ‘new old’: “I saw the old approaching, but it came as the new.”1

Despite various differences, including those stemming from background, temperament and professional rivalry, the newly anointed intellectual top rankers - and their swollen army of academic imitators, media acolytes and useful dupes - propagated an agreed, well orchestrated and generously financed lie. Distinctions of left and right are nowadays unwarranted, managed capitalism is synonymous with democracy, and revolution as a means of achieving social progress has become totally anachronistic.

A lie, yes, but, given Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘deStalinisation’ in the Soviet Union, the internalisation of class collaborationism by ‘official communism’ and the benign conditions of the post-World War II long boom, it had enough basis in truth to be widely believed. Remember, this was the era of vaulting capitalist optimism, the beginning of the US century, Keynesian economics, the social democratic state and the German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian and other such economic miracles.

According to the high priests of the modern, industrial, western or affluent society (‘capitalism’ as a word had been temporarily exorcised from polite conversation), ensuring continued progress towards the pinnacle of social perfection relied on little more than corporate self-interest, ongoing governmental intervention and sensible trade unions (a codeword for rightwing trade union bosses).

The technological revolution, the consumer revolution, the managerial revolution, the green revolution could be, and were, celebrated with gusto. But, in the name of boundless post-World War II possibilities, proletarian revolution - revolution on the model of October 1917, that is - was categorised as an invitation to chaos, the police state, gulag slavery and monocratic dictatorship. The grim, bloody and repulsive reality of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin being fielded as definitive proof.

Almost inevitably this whole ideological construct came to be the common sense of the day. Even the programmes of ‘official communism’, most notably those concerning the imperial heartlands - eg, The British road to socialism - were imbued with the ethos of reformist gradualism, technologism and bureaucratic control.2

The new generation of paid persuaders reduced modern history to a warning. Mould-breaking revolutions such as 1568, 1640, 1688, 1776 and 1789 could hardly be ignored. Variously they were maintained as safe exceptions, offered grudging respect or blessed as edifying national cults. However, be that as it may, they were all in the dim and distant past. Before universal suffrage, before universal education, before the promise of universal prosperity.

Contemporary revolutions in China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Cuba had to be acknowledged. They were. But only to be arrogantly diminished, discounted or denigrated. Economically backward, ‘third world’ and marked by huge disparities of wealth between oppressed peasant masses and a corrupt elite, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Cuba were supposedly manifestations of childish immaturity. A patronising form of apologetics. That three-quarters of the world’s population inhabited such countries, eking out an impoverished living outside the charmed circle of the imperial centres, seemed not to register.

Revolution in advanced capitalist countries, however, was dismissed with absolute confidence. An assessment repeated and repeated again by academia, the media and the political establishment as if it were the apogee of objective, scientifically inspired thinking.3

Form and content

The events in France 40 years ago blew apart the carefully constructed ‘new old’ lies. Like Russia in 1905, this all-encompassing, wonderful, but frustratingly unsuccessful moment brought back into political discourse the idea of revolution; it inspired, tested and encadred leftwing youth and renewed in popular consciousness the hope of radical social transformation ... in France, of course, but also internationally.

Many journalists insist on retelling the May 1968 events as if they solely, or mainly at least, involved students, putting the whole episode down to the passing enthusiasms, joyous zest and often humorous provocations staged by student groups such as the March 22 movement. The name Daniel Cohn-Bendit, ‘Danny the Red’, and his impish, youthful image captured by photographers and film crews, is widely touted as synonymous with May 1968.

Status earned as a campus protest leader in Nanterre the previous year did provide credibility amongst peers. But Cohn-Bendit did not create the combustible social material that was France. Nor could he direct events to a sucessful conclusion. Cohn-Bendit was utterly incapable of that.

The militant working class, its organic traditions, contemporary realities and innate needs were, for Cohn-Bendit, always another country. Son of enlightened, upper-middle class, German-Jewish parents, this rebel against post-World War II conformism did, though, momentarily personify the widespread resentment felt by students against the stultifying rigidities of university life.

Cohn-Bendit hated the alienation, the soullessness of capitalist society, and rejected the crushing prospect of 9-5 office employment. Crucially, though, he dared turn words into action. And, doubtless much to his own surprise, events in May 1968 moved with such elemental speed and grew to such huge proportions that he suddenly found himself credited as being a revolutionary genius.

Clever, pithy and irreverent remarks on sexual relations, the Stalinite trade union bureaucracy and his sincerely held wish for general human freedom seemed to embody the spirit of the age. Perfect sound bites, anyway. Theoretically, he was lightweight, however. A dilettante, an adventurer. Cohn-Bendit was inspired by anarchism, autonomism, left communism and situationalism.4 Yet despite - or, more accurately, because of - his superficiality, his ignorance of political realities and his lack of a coherent programme, the editors, directors, producers and proprietors were delighted. He was just what they needed. Part pyromaniac, part genie, part jester.

There are parallels between Cohn-Bendit and the young Russian orthodox priest, George Gapon (1870-1906), who led the doomed workers’ demonstation to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on January 22 1905. This man of the cloth momentarily found himself a popular leader in Russia and was feted abroad as a revolutionary of the first order. Yet history shows that he was no such thing. In actual fact Gapon was a posturing nonentity, a cheap demagougue and a paid police collaborator to boot.

Form must be distinguished from underlying content. The invasion of female dorms in Nanterre, the occupation of the Sorbonne by thousands of radical students, even the heroic night of the barricades in the Latin quarter do not constitute the real significance of May 1968. They and Cohn-Bendit ignited. Yet after a week his influence was visibly waning even amongst fellow students, and the student revolt itself soon became a sideshow.

The sole contender was the working class. First it rallied to support protesting students. Then it united into a 10 million-strong general strike, brought commerce and industry to a total standstill and in the process spawned countless self-governing local action committees. Finally, though suffering from enforced programmatic myopia, remaining under ‘official communist’ misleadership and settling for a little feast of juicy crumbs, the working class showed beyond any serious doubt that there is no other viable alternative social power. Only the working class could hope to sweep away the bureaucratic-military state in France and go from there to spread the flame of liberation globally.

The media still portrays May 1968 as a situationist stunt, a grand student happening, an outburst of immature foot-stamping whose secret lies in the mecurial personality of Cohn-Bendit. The working class is typically forgotten or reduced to an afterthought.

Very convienient. There is nothing red about Cohn-Bendit nowadays. Grey hair, green politics, black heart. In 1984 Cohn-Bendit joined Germany’s Green Party, from where he began a rapid shift to the right. Elected an MEP, he supported Nato invervention in Bosnia and Afghanistan. As a direct concomitant Cohn-Bendit unashamedly espouses neoliberal, so-called ‘free market economics’.

Now co-president of the European Greens, he maintains that distinctions of left and right are irrelevant in the 21st century, that neoliberal capitalism is the only game in town. Obviously, when it comes to May 1968, his comments are considered particularly worthwhile: “I say forget May 1968 … It is finished. Society today bears no relationship with that of the 1960s. When we called ourself anti-authoritarian, we were fighting against a very different society.”5 Surely yet another example of the ‘new old’.


Accumulated over decades, conditions had become ripe for May 1968. There appears to have been a conjuncture of five main factors:

1. Constitution. Modern France is unmistakably shaped by the crisis brought to a head by the 1954-62 Algerian war. A struggle for national independence which took France to the brink of civil war. Neither 400,000 troops, systematic torture nor the three million pieds noirs settler population could defeat Algeria’s Front de Libération Nationale. French society completely divided over the issue. Despite the bureaucratic conservatism of the Parti Communiste Français, a powerful anti-war movement developed, particularly among youth.

The final coda of French rule was the Algiers coup of May 1958 under general Raoul Salan (1899-1984). Supported both by French settlers and the army in Algeria, he attempted to stop the drift towards independence once and for all. His Committee of Public Safety seized power in Algiers, refused to recognise the Paris government and demanded supreme power be handed to Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970).

Why de Gaulle? Because he came from a good, aristocratic catholic family and upheld traditional French values. Because he was a trusted member of France’s officer corps. De Gaulle had served as a professional soldier since 1912 and during World War II commanded the Free French forces. Because as a soldier-politician he only paid lip-service to democracy. Having become provisional president in September 1944, he eventually resigned as prime minister two years later in protest against the Fourth Republic’s newly agreed parliamentary constitution. Quite clearly he entertained Bonapartist ambitions.

So the Algiers coup came like a sign from god. His moment had arrived. Here was destiny calling. De Gaulle regally announced that he was available. But he only agreed to assume power with the consent of the national assembly. While he patiently bided his time at Colombey-les-deux-Églises, party leaders in Paris dithered. The PCF should have demanded a system of people’s militias and in the meantime busily set about  arming the working class. But it did not. Inevitably, given the cowardly passivity, France’s constitutional crisis further deepened. Paratroopers from Algeria took over Corsica and rumours followed of a similar move against Paris.

In June 1958 the bourgeois parties finally conceded to de Gaulle’s wishes. Granted emergency powers, he went on in 1959 to win a clear referendum majority for his Fifth Republic and a hybrid parliamentary-presidential constitution. But, to the dismay of diehard reactionaries, de Gaulle agreed to Algerian independence in March 1962. Feeling betrayed, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) launched its campaign of terrorism and tried to assassinate their former hero (there were 30 such attempts to kill general de Gaulle).

All in all, however, despite the fury of the ultra-right - the precursors of Le Pen and Front National - France was made safe from the working class danger. The country could only be considered a quasi-democracy. Indeed the Fifth Republic was designed as an elaborate system of checks and balances against democracy centred on an elected monarch.

2. Economics. The long post-World War II boom eventually ran into a slowdown. Growth was harder and harder to sustain and mass unemployment, supposedly a thing of the past, returned - in 1968 it rose to half a million in France.

Nevertheless, during this whole boom period the industrial working class grew in strength. Keynesian economics might have been conceived as a means of ensuring continued capital accumulation, and placating and thereby controlling the working class. Over time, however, it turned into its opposite. Accumulation diminished, as the tendency for the rate of profit to decline kicked in. And yet, even with the return of mass unemployment, workers exercised more and more leverage over their immediate environment. The right of management to manage was steadily eroded.

3. Wages. In an attempt to “make France marry her century”, since the end of 1963 the Gaullist regime imposed strict wage controls. De Gaulle wanted France to catch up with Germany, Britain and the United States. The result? Slower increase in the pay packets, compared with other workers in western Europe, and ever widening differentials between workers’ incomes and those of middle class professionals and the upper managerial, state and bureaucratic echelons. Resentment built and built.

4. Culture. In every field - music, sexuality, theatre, film, fashion - there was a rising tide of rebellion against the dehumanising conformism of post-World War II society and a determination to vivre autrement - live differently. Undoubtedly a product of improved living standards: wages, social security, grants, pensions, etc. No matter how pinched,  the human spirit found room to stir. Moreover, as shown by Algeria, Cuba, the Vietnam war, America’s Black Panthers, Mao Zedong’s red guards, Che Guevara’s guerrilla foci in Bolivia and a rising tide of industrial militancy, revolution was in the air.

5. Students. In response to the socio-economic requirements of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, its big administrative machine and the managerial economy, university intakes dramatically increased. Students became a large, distinct, generational group. Numbers shot from 200,000 in 1961 to 500,000 by 1968. Given what students actually wanted to study, the universities produced an “inordinately enlarged” stratum of intellectuals who had no hope of employment (at least in terms of their training). Hence the “crisis of education”.6

As a punishment for its anti-war activities in the early 60s, the French students’ national union had been severely restricted (shades of the self-imposed restrictions adopted today by the leadership of our National Union of Students). Denied state funds, in 1968, it had only half its 1961 membership - despite the massively increased intake.

So student discontent was rising in an atmosphere of working class militancy, cultural innovation and radical utopianism, but had no institutional avenue of expression. Rigid administration, outdated teaching practices, suffocating overcrowding in lecture halls, single-sex dorms in the age of the pill and rebellion against old sexual mores. All this went towards the “howl” of frustration among the “extravagant swains” (Schiller).

De Gaulle’s Bonapartist presidency meant a squeezed space for normal bourgeois politics. Parties tended to be loose conglomerations with little or no permanently structured organisation. The street remained of particular importance in France. Moreover, under de Gaulle France decisively launched its singular course in foreign policy: an independent nuclear weapons capacity, distrust of Britain and Europe as a potential rival to US hegemony. Yet, notwithstanding de Gaulle’s costly foibles and grand imperial ambitions, prior to May 1968 the country seemed to have become a model of capitalist stability.

The Algerian war and the Fourth Republic’s ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ governments had been replaced by the general’s post-colonial Fifth Republic and a decade of sustained growth under the Keynesian Commissariat du Plan.

But life speaks for itself. Unaware of it though he was, there can be no denying that de Gaulle stood atop a mountain of discontent. All it took was the ‘bedroom revolt’ in favour of ‘free circulation’ in student dorms and anti-Vietnam war protests to put the match to what should have been a funeral pyre l


1. B Brecht Poems 1913-1956  London 1987, p323.
2. See J Conrad Which road?  London 1991.
3. See I Mészáros The power of ideology Hemel Hempstead 1989, for a full discussion of the ruling ideas of the 1950s and 60s.
4. The Situationist International was a tiny, eclectic, highly fractious and much overrated sect of radical artists and intellectuals. It claimed anticedents in the ideas of Karl Marx: in actual fact, though, it owed more to dada than Marxism. There can be no denying that the writings of situationists like Guy Debord (1931-94), Attila Kotanyi  (1924-2004), etc excercised a strong influence over the minds of a layer of student activists. Romantic and utopian slogans, inspired by, or directly taken from, key situationist texts appeared on countless Parisian walls in 1968: eg, ‘Soyez réalistes - demandez l’impossible!’ (Be realistic - demand the impossible!), ‘Sous les pavés, la plage! ’ (Beneath the paving stones - the beach).
5. The Independent Febuary 22 2008.
6. I Mészáros Marx’s theory of alienation London 1982, p229.