Today is the first of May, a day of international solidarity for the working class and labour movement, and always a day of memory for me. In the mid 1970s when I was thirteen years old, I was sitting with my language exchange partner Pierre in his bedroom in a ground floor flat in Montparnasse. I was leafing through a magazine—Paris Match as it happens—and there were pictures of the May events from 1968. I was absolutely stunned by them. Here, in Western Europe, there had been a street-fighting and a general strike within the past few years? I’d been aware of Czechoslovakia and, indeed, my whole school had chanted “Dubcek! Dubcek!” when the Christmas pudding had been brought out in 68, but of Paris I knew nothing. I resolved to find out more, and when the opportunity arose to choose a school history project, I asked if I could study the May events and produced a longish dossier, complete with photos, newspaper clippings and the rest. A few years later, in 1978—and hence on the 10th anniversary—I joined the May Day parade for myself at the Place de la République, no longer an observer but a participant.
What did May represent for me? There was an element of romantic adolescent attachment to be sure, but also the possibility of another society. In the reconstructed history of the victorious Thatcherites the choice that had to be made was between the marketized West and the gloomy authoritarianism of the Soviet bloc. But May 68 seemed to offer a different way, perhaps (oh dear!) a third way. And in a sense it did, it offered the hope of a non-authoritarian and participatory egalitarianism (and coupled with the Prague Spring, the chance of socialism with a human face). From that flowed a lot of other things, social movements, feminism, ecologism, trends in art and culture (there were other sources for these streams, to be sure). The possibility of rejecting the world of corporate power without embracing dourness and concrete was a liberating thought, some might say a naive and romantic one, to which I say “Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible!”
The memory of May, or at least the memory of the possibility of May, has always been there for me as a nourishing idea like Wordsworth’s Tintern when times have been bad (as they so often have since). It doesn’t have to be this way: vivre autrement. Sadly, when I was talking to a very smart student of left-wing convictions the other day, I mentioned May 68 and she asked “What happened in May 68?” It seems the memory of May is no longer there in the imagination of the left. Time for a revival.