Marco Bénit Hontangas.
May 1968 represented one of the most emblematic social events of the 20th century. To this day, it is still a huge source of inspiration for those political and social groups who pursue change in society. May 1968 will always be remembered as the lost revolution that almost came to life, thanks to the struggle of thousands of passionate young college students who demanded a radical change for the world that they lived in. More freedom, the change of the relations with power in political institutions, a new democracy based on active participation and the promotion of new cultural values, were some of the central claims of this unique apolitical social movement (Sulmont; Revueltas, 1998). Some of the main actors even saw an opportunity to build the real revolution. But was May of 1968 a revolution of any sort?
By that time, the revolutionary spirit in Western countries remained confined to medium-class young people and intellectuals. It was precisely medium-class university students who inspired and shaped the events; however, intellectuals did not play any significant role in their development (Hobsbawn, 1973). The wish of these groups for revolution was closely related to a feeling of urge to materialize some specific social changes that they thought were not feasible by non-revolutionary means. Revolution was a matter of necessity; the other alternatives had failed. The ideologies that enveloped this social movement were all colored with some degree of (leftist) radicalism: anarchism was the strongest one, but there was also room for small Maoists and Trotskyists groups, accompanied by diverse forms of counterculture.
In order to understand the chances of May 1968 to actually establish a revolution, we need to differentiate two marked phases: 1) The mobilization of students, which caused the recoil of the government, and 2) the spread of the “spark” to the working classes, which was followed by a huge two-week-long strike that was seconded by more than 10 million people. Only this second stage created true revolutionary possibilities; the student movement was not politically dangerous: it was impossible for it to make the revolution, although it was clearly underestimated by the governmental authorities.
There was a point in which French politicians really felt that the régime was in a risky situation. The government was demoralized and the movement of the soixante-huitards was gaining more and more support in the public opinion: even some groups in other countries were imitating it. But the régime of De Gaulle did not fall; revolution never happened. Then, what are we left with?
According to Gamson, success of social movements is dependent on a series of factors. He stated that: 1) Groups with a single demand were more successful than those with a multiplicity or not-well-defined claims; 2) the use of violence and disruptive tactics often led to success; and 3) successful groups tended to be more bureaucratized, centralized, and unfactionalized (Gamson, 1990). The May 1968 movement did not fulfill any of these conditions. In the first place, the aims and demands of the movement were not limited, specific and clear enough, as it has been shown. Second, violence was not part of the repertoire of action of the protesters; there were only a few isolated episodes of police violence at the beginning, along with the construction of barricades in the Latin Quarter. And third, the structure of mobilization was notably based on spontaneity and decentralization, and there were also high degrees of fragmentation and confrontation. The calling of the working class by the student collective was not approved by the labor unions, even though they wound up calling for a general strike. The CGT (Confédération générale du travail) qualified the student leaders as “pseudo-revolutionaries”, while the last branded the first as reformist and conservative (Sulmont). Labor union leaders rejected the possibility of giving way to any revolutionary form of action, claiming that the political conditions for it to be plausible did not exist at the moment. Faced with the panorama of an uncontrolled and uncoordinated collective action, the unions decided to put an end to the “wild” strikes (Revueltas, 1998) and reduce the social demands exclusively to professional claims. Both the CGT and the French Communist Party refused to join any kind of revolutionary fight, which they considered contrary to the interests of the working people, and chose the path of reformism. Thus the movement entered its stage of exhaustion. The internal divisions along with the inexorable fatigue of the struggle fostered the entrance into an inevitable period of wear.
This was the perfect chance for the government to put an end to this issue. The two things that French politicians did best were to resist the temptation to repress the protesters and to avoid an alliance between the working class and the students. De Gaulle was able to mobilize the conservative and medium-class people, appealing, precisely, to the fear of a revolution. At the general elections of June of the same year, the right gained an absolute majority.
So, was May 1968 a revolution? According to the work of Tarrow, what he calls a revolutionary cycle requires both a revolutionary situation, which is not completely clear in the case that we are dealing with, and a revolutionary outcome, that is to say, an effective transfer of state power to a whole new set of political actors (Tarrow, 1994), something which obviously did not happen: the system remained the same.
But this doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful to a certain point. We can distinguish at least two kinds of outcome that resulted from this social movement: first, the change in cultural and social values –the questioning of the authority and the persecution of individual liberty and happiness- and second, the construction of a collective identity that inspires many of the social movements of today, like feminism, ecologist movements or even the 15-M. Like so many other social movements in history, May 1968 created new opportunities for future collective action and for the appearance of new political actors, as much as it contributed to the innovation of the repertoires of action by popularizing, for example, public assemblies. What is for sure is that it will always remain in our minds as a symbol of the struggle for our civil rights and the fight against power.
- GIUGNI, M. «Was it worth the effort? The Outcomes and Consequences of Social Movements», Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 24 (1998), pp. 371-393.
- HOBSBAWN, E. (1995). «La revolución cultural», Historia del Siglo XX. Barcelona: Crítica.
- HOBSBAWN, E. (1973). Revolucionarios. Barcelona: Crítica.
- TARROW, S. (2012, ed. Original 1994). El poder en movimiento: los movimientos sociales, la acción colectiva y la política. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
- SULMONT, D. El sentido histórico de Mayo del 68. (On line). Available on: https://socialesjaranda.wikispaces.com/file/view/El+sentido+hist%C3%B3rico+de+Mayo+del+68.pdf
- REVUELTAS, A. (1998). 1968: La Revolución de Mayo en Francia (On line). Available on: http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=305026670006
-  Cited by Giugni (1998).
-  According to what Alain Touraine said in an interview to Efe, machismo started its decline in May 1968 (http://www.publico.es/actualidad/machismo-empezo-declive-mayo-del.html).
-  See the article written by Alberto Garzón comparing the two events: http://www.eldiario.es/Kafka/Movimiento-Mayo_0_111288889.html.