May 1968 graffiti (Paris): “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY”

-by Michael Urban

The Paris Commune of 1871, in which a socially democratic government was briefly formed in opposition to authoritarian leadership, is worth considering alongside the Paris protests of May 1968, as both had profound influences on socialism, anarchism, and beyond.1 Lasting until June, the ’68 protests had a similar timeframe to the Commune and even replicated some of its imagery, such as barricades and red flags.2 The movement started among disgruntled university students, quickly spreading into a general strike that enveloped all of France, including a fifth of all Parisians.3 Key issues involved repressed speech and unfavourable labor conditions despite a “post-war boom.”4 What followed were protestors clashing with police and destroying property, going so far as burning the Stock Exchange.5 It ended when the French government threw “‘a few crumbs to the people’” in the form of minor wage increases and contracts, although broader systemic changes were not immediately achieved.6

May ’68 was distinguished somewhat from the Commune by the involvement of the students. Although education and youth participation were encouraged, the working class were considered the driving force of the Commune and their “emancipation… had to be [their] own doing,” whereas May ’68 was very much the brainchild of students.7 Although the ‘68 events are considered the “greatest general strike in French history,” workers were quiet and underrepresented until student protests began.8 Nearly a century after the Commune, after having absorbed much of its political legacy, these students existed as a clearly defined demographic with lofty political ambitions.

The students initial concerns were similar to Communards’ frustrations with material inadequacies. Students at Nanterre were given a “soulless” campus, ill-equipped for the growing number of new students.9 They rebelled against the Dean’s office after arrests of certain committee members violated their free speech, an inciting incident much like the communards’ reclaiming of cannons, and thus their right to protection, at Montmartre.10 From there, the growth of both revolutionary events differs somewhat. The Commune, though fuelled by national economic and wartime frustrations, was relatively decentralized and isolated from the rest of France once in place.11 The May ’68 uprising capitalized on prior strikes elsewhere in France, aiming to build on their momentum and create a wider Pan-French movement.12

In representing that movement, students of ’68 benefitted from an exposure to varied philosophical ideas; in addition to the Commune’s Marxism and Blanquisme were new strains like Maoism.13The students had an awareness of societal and hierarchical tensions. The “deep crises of workforce, family, school system and cultural front” coalesced through them.14 A criticism sometimes levelled at the Commune is that many of its leaders were inexperienced, with “no real knowledge” of the institutions they oversaw.15 The students, with hindsight and modern experience, were in a unique position to learn from those missteps. When the students from Nanterre decided to declare “solidarity with the working class,” their willingness to reach out was apparent, and many workers in turn sought their guidance.16

In terms of hierarchy and leadership, the structure of May ‘68 was one of “open discussion without an imposing leadership.”17 Although painstakingly democratic and careful, it was also slower and less decisive than the Commune’s leadership. May ’68 rebels were more in favour of “changing their rulers rather than taking control for themselves,” a large reason why their larger goals of social change fizzled out by the end.18 Although unions during the Commune aimed to be cooperative and egalitarian, those same institutions were more splintered and antagonistic by 1968. Unions denounced rioters at first, only begrudgingly allying with them after the movement gained momentum; even then, they scaled back striker demands.19 Unions often made decisions without member input, and their restraint of protestors often resembled the censorship and misinformation spread by Versailles in 1871. Commune committees were created so that their power emanated from the people, but by May ’68, it was clear that some of those organizations had gone on to dominate its members.20

Although the revolutionary thinker Mikhail Bakunin said there was “more practical good sense [in the] masses than in the profound intelligence of all the…guides of humanity,” the presence of educated youth as figureheads in 1968 proved that there was still need for the role of intelligentsia in socialist revolt.21 By then, revolutionary fervor had built upon the foundations of the Commune, adopting increasingly global appeal.22 The students of ’68 show us the importance of leadership to shape revolutionary rhetoric, mobilize dissent, and connect the masses beyond the boundaries of class and profession.

from the archive

May Made Me, a collection of first-hand interviews recounting the May 1968 revolt, serves to illustrate how that event both resembled and diverged from the Paris Commune. Among the differences is the prevalence of students leading the revolt, whereas “workers… were there strictly physically and not politically,” an example of how uniquely the movement was led.23 However, the minutia of day-to-day operations show clear similarities in revolutionary spirit that allow both events to be grouped more closely together as widespread and involving socialist revolutions.

Much like the Commune, the ‘68 movement was “self-organizing… [and had] self-management” thanks to multiple coordinated committees that gave a sense of self-suffiency.24 When President de Gaulle retreated from Paris much like Thiers did during the Commune, it left a power vacuum that gave protestors more latitude to act and organize.25 The protestors had a goal of occupying and reappropriating space they felt was owed to them.26 Distrust of the media and an unwillingness to speak with journalists was also present.27

Tactics were similar in both instances too. Institutions like the Stock Exchange being assaulted by “somebody [who] took some gasoline and set it on fire” bear similarities to burning done by Communards.28 There is even mention of ’68 rebels who “constructed barricades… [and] played at being Communards of 1871,” indicating Commune influences and a desire to replicate them.29 Occurrences like the taking of Sorbonne, defacing imagery, and the use of graffiti show that rebels were aware of the symbolic importance of locations and iconography.30

Both events also displayed a solidarity among various groups of citizens, such as when certain teachers would join students in protest, or when bakers would provide food and supplies to protestors.31 Various divisions relied on each other for information and updates to remain coordinated, particularly from students.32 Workers eventually created items like walkie talkies for protestor use,much like how the Commune produced materials like uniforms.33 Because the Paris government was itself “in tune with foreign capitalist nations” at the time, there was also the sense revolutionaries had to unite and cooperate.34

Although starting small, featuring only a couple hundred of students, the May ’68 protests grew until pockets of demonstrations “covered half of Paris.”35 Enthusiastic and widely supported, May ‘68 involved the resistance and effective displacement of contemporary authoritarian security forces. As such, it stands alongside the Commune as one of the most influential modern socialist revolutions.

  1. David Porter, “French Anarchists and the Continuing Power of 1968,” Modern & Contemporary France 24, no. 2 (2016): 143-159, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-porter-french-anarchists-and-the-continuing-power-of-may-1968.
  2. Mitchell Abidor, May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France (Anarchist News, 2018), Alain Krivine interview, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/mitchell-abidor-may-made-me#toc31; Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  3. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  4. Dermot Sreenan, “Paris 1968: When France Rebelled,” Workers Solidarity no. 39 (1993),  https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/dermot-sreenan-paris-1968#toc13.
  5. Abidor, May Made Me, Jean-Jacques Lebel interview.
  6. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  7. Errico Malatesta, “The Paris Commune,” La Questione Sociale 6 nos. 28-29 (March 1900), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/errico-malatesta-the-paris-commune.
  8. Porter, “French Anarchists.”.
  9. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled.”
  10. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled.”
  11. Iain McKay, “Anarcho: The Paris Commune, Marxism, and Anarchism,” (anarchism. pageabode.com, 2008), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anarcho-the-paris-commune-marxism-and-anarchism.
  12. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  13. Ngo Van, “Impressions of May,” (LibCom, 1968), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ngo-van-xuyet-impressions-of-may.
  14. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  15. McKay, “Anarcho.”
  16. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled.”
  17. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  18. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled.”
  19. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled.”
  20. Malatesta, “The Paris Commune.”
  21. Michail Bakunin, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of State,” trans. Sam Dolgoff, (Bakunin on Anarchy, 1971), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/michail-bakunin-the-paris-commune-and-the-idea-of-the-state.
  22. Ngo Van, “Impressions of May.”
  23. Abidor, May Made Me, Alain Krivine interview.
  24. Abidor, May Made Me, Jean-Jacques Lebel interview.
  25. Abidor, May Made Me, Alain Krivine interview.
  26. Porter, “French Anarchsists.”
  27. Abidor, May Made Me, Prisca Bachelet interview.
  28. Abidor, May Made Me, Jean-Jacques Lebel interview.
  29. Abidor, May Made Me, Alain Krivine interview.
  30. Abidor, May Made Me, Prisca Bachelet interview.
  31. Abidor, May Made Me, Prisca Bachelet interview.
  32. Abidor, May Made Me, Henri Simon interview.
  33. Sreenan, “When France Rebelled”; Malatesta, “The Paris Commune.”
  34. Porter, “French Anarchists.”
  35. Abidor, May Made Me, Prisca Bachelet interview.

further reading

Michail Bakunin, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of State,” trans. Sam Dolgoff, (Bakunin on Anarchy, 1971), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/michail-bakunin-the-paris-commune-and-the-idea-of-the-state.

This article by the legendary Bakunin explores the status of Paris and its relationship to the rest of France; how economy and politics are centralized in Paris as a combination of many ideas. It also theorizes that the failings of the Commune leader are owed in large part to them still hanging on outdated bourgeois ideals that were not fully compatible with the innovation of the Commune. From his writings we may be able to better understand why both the Commune and May ’68 were short-lived and did not live up to their full political potential.

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