May '68 and its Afterlives [Review]

Bullshit Detector
A review of Kristin Ross, May '68 and its Afterlives.
University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN 0-226-727971 $27.50 (get it from a library!)

The events of May 1968 in Paris are one of the great legacies of the Sixties. They show that no matter what concessions are made to create social peace (bigger cages, longer chains) revolution still has plenty to offer; and not just to groups of political nit-pickers, but that whole swathes of people can get up and say 'Enough of this! We want to live!' Such inspiring examples, when too large to be ignored, have to be explained away. The rivers of ink which have been used to try and blot out this significance are the subject of May '68 and its Afterlives.

This is an academic book, and the author's not afraid to come out with lines like this: 'Liberation would play a central role in producing and circulating the tropes and images through which May came progressively to be transcoded.' (page 116) Thankfully, most of the book is clearer than that. If this book has a sound, it's the sound of an axe being sharpened, rather than someone applauding their own cleverness.

Ross has her axe out for histories of May '68 which try to turn it into a high-spirited tea party rather than a revolutionary situation, painting it as the growing pains of capitalism, not an attempt to destroy it. It's important because it shows the agenda of those who focus on students in Paris in May all the better to sweep under the carpet the unruly workers all across France - before and after May. All history runs the risk of getting tangled in myth, and it's very pleasing to see the process of deliberate falsification and its purpose laid bare. Make no mistake, the neo-Liberal fuckers are just as bad as the Stalinists.

Anarchists would do well to read this since the examination of the 'prehistory' may challenge a few myths of the 'Situationists paint great slogans on walls, and Paris erupts' type. But the greatest strength of this book is that it gives some sense of the liberation people felt, freed from being bounced between working and consuming, able to get on with living — a yawning gap opening up between the-world-as-it-is and the-world-as-it-could-be. My favourite example of this is the origins of those famous posters: the artists first produced some to sell to support the movement. These were taken off them and flyposted: art goes immediately from being just another commodity to something useful.

The discussion of the political process during the ferment of May plays up the importance of equality, direct democracy and self-management, which connects with the destruction of the movement by capitalism's expert 'loyal opposition' in the unions and Communist Party and of 'expert' historians and ex-militants (poachers turned gamekeepers) in making sure the idea of liberation stays dead: 'Anonymous militants, neither celebrities nor martyrs, people embedded at the time in the texture of everyday neighbourhood grassroots activity - these are the voices that by the mid 1980s had all but disappeared from any version of '68, eclipsed by those who had become the post facto stars, leaders and spokesmen for the movement.' (page 143.)

This is not a study of the events of May themselves - there are no pictures of barricades - but it is a great mental detonator to encourage us to look at them and their meaning. Hopefully next time we'll remember that Everything must change and that the privileges of experts - even experts of revolution or social change - are trouble waiting to happen.


From: From Black Flag no. 223, 2003.