The fading buds of May

by Chris Bertram on May 1, 2014


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.



Chris Armstrong 05.01.14 at 4:09 pm

I agree.


Phil 05.01.14 at 4:54 pm



MPAVictoria 05.01.14 at 5:01 pm

“Time for a revival.”



LFC 05.01.14 at 5:15 pm

Nice post.
Worth recalling that “the world revolution of 1968” (to borrow I. Wallerstein’s phrase) was a global upheaval, with repercussions from Paris to Pakistan (and in a lot of other places as well).


Main Street Muse 05.01.14 at 5:45 pm

What I remember happening on May Day – the annual parade of Soviet military might as it marched past Lenin’s Tomb.

While I don’t remember May ’68, I do know that August ’68 gave us violent and very bloody riots in Chicago, and there were two shocking assassinations in the US in April and in June of that year. Forgive my parochialism, but I’ve never viewed 1968 as hopeful at all.


Neville Morley 05.01.14 at 6:07 pm

This is an age thing. My response to ’68 is almost wholly intellectualised (discounting the after-effects of various vintage Giles cartoons that I didn’t understand until much later), and largely filtered through the German rather than French experience – much more rage than hope, I suspect, and much more ambivalent because of the consequences, deutscher Herbst etc. The formative moment for me in this genre was rather 1981: Brixton and the rest. Tends to be shorter on hope.


Ze Kraggash 05.01.14 at 6:24 pm

“What I remember happening on May Day – the annual parade of Soviet military might as it marched past Lenin’s Tomb.”

False memories. I believe they had two military parades/year, May 9 and November 7, since, like, mid 1960s. On May Day no military might; just people (well, ‘workers’, to be precise) walking across the square, waving flags, greeting their dear leaders.


Main Street Muse 05.01.14 at 7:52 pm

That’s too many parades, Ze Kraggash! And apparently they’ve revived the May Day parade today…

I think American news only covered the parades with the tanks – visuals which were helpful to Reagan for drumming up support for Star Wars and such.


Ze Kraggash 05.01.14 at 8:10 pm

Yes, and apparently he revived both the May Day parade (which is a rally, no military), and the Victory Day parade (May 9), which is a proper military parade.


Colin Danby 05.01.14 at 9:58 pm

I realize MSM is trying to dramatize ignorance, but I’m bothered by the agentless “August ’68 gave us violent and very bloody riots in Chicago” given that what happened was police violence against citizens engaged in political protest.

The larger point stands that in the USA it was a traumatic year, especially if you remember the arc from LBJ’s withdrawal in March to Richard Nixon’s victory in November.


Harold 05.01.14 at 10:09 pm


bob mcmanus 05.01.14 at 10:20 pm

Just picked up Daniel Bensaid’s memoir, along with something called “Isaac and Isaiah” that I expect to really enjoy. Just like Weber, all alike.

1968 probably marked the end of Fordism and the possibility of mass national-level lasting mobilizations in at least the developed economies. And probably the end of ideology and nations (but not states) No more Ardennes, no more AFL-CIOs. I don’t consider it either positive or negative, hopeful or despairing.


Main Street Muse 05.01.14 at 10:30 pm

To Colin, to me, the ’68 Chicago convention is indeed all about police bashing protesters in the streets – I assumed all were aware of that aspect of the violence.

To Bob McManus, I don’t see the death of ideology in 1968. I feel we’re still in the grip of ideology today.


Ed Herdman 05.01.14 at 10:43 pm

I read just a little bit about this recently – it seemed that a number of the important leaders of the May ’68 protests allowed themselves to be coopted over the years (or did it willingly themselves). I’ve had a copy of the book “May ’68 and its Afterlives” for a long while now, but haven’t found time to read it. I’ll go ahead and do so.

I like Bob’s point about Fordism – it’s important groundwork for the burgeoning shift towards the salary explosion some have dated to the ’70s (in, for example, mass market arts, where salaries started skyrocketing.)


LFC 05.02.14 at 2:37 am

b. mcmanus
1968 probably marked the end of Fordism

I v. much doubt one could pin this down to a single year (as opposed to several going into the early 70s), but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, I suppose.

And probably the end of ideology and nations (but not states)


LFC 05.02.14 at 2:47 am

Not sure I agree *entirely* w Wallerstein’s take on ’68, but it’s the opposite of mcmanus’s and I’ll take it over mcmanus’s. Far from marking the end of ideology, ’68, W. contends, undermined the then-dominant liberal centrism and allowed right and left both new breathing room and scope for activity (though he doesn’t use those exact words). The thesis is stated compactly in the last chap. of his World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (2004).


LFC 05.02.14 at 2:53 am

something called “Isaac and Isaiah” that I expect to really enjoy

saw this is in a bkstore some months ago. It’s by David Caute, about Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin. Looked sort of interesting but I didn’t buy it.


Meredith 05.02.14 at 6:27 am

Wasn’t American Labor Day designated for September as way to celebrate labor NOT on May Day?

Yeah, if you grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s as I did, May Day was largely presented on the news as Soviet tanks or something — and, at the same time, in school, as an occasion for children to make a picture of flowers for their mothers and to bring daffodils to their teachers. The usual US American disconnect.

By 1968, though, many children raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s were making connections. Not angry (just), Neville, but (mostly) hopeful. We were young, after all.


Sasha Clarkson 05.02.14 at 9:29 am

I became a teenager in May ’68. Although I was an avid follower of the news, the disturbances in France and the US didn’t seem to me to be relevant to the UK. Even then though, I watched the apparently inexorable rise of Richard Nixon with great unease.

I suspect that Harold Wilson’s refusal to involve Britain in the Vietnam War had something to do with Britain being relatively quiet.

I was staying as a guest with a family in Vienna when the tanks rolled in. The eldest son of the family was a taxi-driver who took journalists to the border, and brought refugees back to Vienna. The failure of Dubček’s obvious decency in the face of international Realpolitik was quite traumatic. In hindsight of course, success for Dubček would have suited neither the Soviets nor the Americans.

I encountered one strange legacy of ’68 A few years later, when travelling independently in Europe (By InterRail). In several cities, but particularly Paris one was liable to be stopped by Gilbert Shelton hippy lookalikes from ‘The Children of God’ distributing very odd pamphlets. I’m sure I still have one somewhere about “Nitler and his Nitzies”.


John Garrett 05.02.14 at 2:37 pm

I flew into Paris on the first flight after the airports reopened in May 1968. After De Gaulle came down from Olympus to call for the reestablishment of order, there was at once deep despair and fragments of hope 0n the left in France and the US. Then RFK was murdered and the hope died. For many of us, hope for basic change here is still pretty much dead, although we still try to do what we can.



Watson Ladd 05.02.14 at 3:50 pm

I’d rather remember 1917. RFK, lawyer for McCarthy, a revolutionary? Only in an American left determined to forget everything it once knew about Marxism could this happen. In the 1970’s there is a return to Marx movement because of the recognition that something more was required.

Adorno I think had it correct. May 1968 was not anti-authoritiarian. It was the worse kind of authoritarianism, authoritarianism without authoritarians, and I don’t think that anyone from the 1960’s would be terribly surprised at the matrix of groups that exist on the left today or their positions.


John Garrett 05.02.14 at 4:08 pm

So Daniel Cohn-Bendit was an authoritarian, and the general strikes of transport and airlines and others were too? And De Gaulle was actually ending an authoritarian movement? Yes, RFK worked for McCarthy as a young man, but if you’d read what he was saying and doing in 1968, you’d have to conclude that he changed dramatically. As we all can.


LFC 05.02.14 at 7:52 pm

W. Ladd:
May 1968 was not anti-authoritarian. It was the worse kind of authoritarianism

Weird remark, imo. May 1968, as I mentioned above, was one aspect, one part, of a global upheaval and I’m not at all sure it makes a great deal of sense to consider it in isolation — yes, others here have mentioned the U.S. in 1968, but there were student and worker protests across the world (though not everywhere — not in the UK, apparently, to judge from comments above). In Pakistan, the protests led fairly directly to the departure of power from Ayub Khan in early ’69 — not that he was replaced with someone better (on the contrary, Yayha Khan was worse), but it shows the political impact that ’68 had, and in a country that is not that often mentioned when ’68 is discussed. See, for a recent account of this, the beginning of Srinath Raghavan’s recent book on the creation of Bangladesh (and sources cited therein).


Watson Ladd 05.03.14 at 2:38 am

John Garret: Adorno was rendered unable to teach on Marxism by student protesters. It might not be a burning at the stake, but it certainly was not the actions of those concerned with human freedom.

Suppose RFK is elected President. Does the US become a worker’s state? No. It remains the central capitalist country, underpinning opposition to any form of Marxism worldwide. It might be nicer to the workers, but the Democratic party was never a socialist party. SDS, RYM I and RYM II were not the same sort of thing as Eugene McCarthy’s campaign

@LFC: Yes, I forgot about Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sadly, I don’t know enough to comment intelligently.


Colin Danby 05.03.14 at 6:47 am

RFK represented an opportunity for an earlier end to the Vietnam War, a cause that Adorno also had trouble understanding.


Meredith 05.03.14 at 7:35 am

RFK here. Curious memories. A senior in high school in a suburb of NYC, I had been going door-to-door for Eugene McCarthy (encouraged by my liberal Republican parents — go figure). I don’t remember paying much attention to RFK at the time (my mother didn’t much like him, as I recall — she had little patience for moralists). But I do remember my father waking me up not with the usual “Up and at ’em!” or “Land o’ Goshen!” (which I always mis-heard as “Atlantic Ocean”) with the words that “your hero” had been killed. My hero? Where did his words come from? He of the WWII generation, a generation still not at all far from those who had broken the prairie, fought in the Civil War?

What had I been dreaming about? Some boy? A French poem (I discovered Rimbaud in my senior year of high school), Virgil (still discovering him now), a math problem, a girlfriend who hadn’t returned my phone call? What adolescent preoccupation? Whence my father’s misapprenhension about me and RFK? Or, did he understand (well, intuit) more than I did? (Fathers can be good at that with their daughters.)

I was at the time aware of Bangladesh, too, in some way. Peripheral vision is powerful. I’d love to hear more from others about their very individual and personal experiences of 1968. We were connected in some powerful way, of that I am sure.


bad Jim 05.03.14 at 8:34 am

In May 1968 I was a month short of graduating from high school. I don’t actually remember, but I suspect at the time I was mostly focused on a young woman who is now retiring from her position as a surgeon in the emergency room at a major hospital. My niece works with her. Southern California may have tens of millions of people, but it’s still a small world.

That summer I had a job with the aerospace company that gave me a scholarship, and I flew a Czech flag from the antenna of my first car in celebration of Dubcek and Svoboda and the Prague Spring. That year at Berkeley there were police actions every quarter, and riots every spring thereafter. We danced in Telegraph avenue when Nixon resigned and when Saigon fell, and there was also a rather nice lunar eclipse one midnight.


Main Street Muse 05.03.14 at 11:09 am

The idea that any American presidential candidate would create a Marxist workers utopia is at best a stretch, in reality, an impossible dream.

RFK was a man transformed by his brother’s assassination. His speech in Indianapolis the night MLK died was one of the most honest and beautiful pieces of political rhetoric of the 20th century:

A quote from that speech: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

I don’t remember ’68, but my father was a huge Kennedy fan. He and my mother were to go downtown Chicago to celebrate my father’s birthday but MLK was killed that day and Chicago went up in flames. They stayed home that night. Indianapolis remained calm and many attribute that to RFK’s speech.


LFC 05.03.14 at 3:31 pm

Just to clarify re Bangladesh: the crisis itself and the resulting creation of the state (which had been E. Pakistan) occurred in 1971. The point in this connection re 1968 is that students/worker protests in Pakistan that year led (or contributed) to the coming to power of Yahya Khan in early ’69, and Yahya’s accession (he was a military man of no notable political or intellectual capacity) can be seen as having laid part of the groundwork for the rather complicated series of events that culminated in the creation of B’desh in Dec. 71.

I was 11 yrs old in 1968, so I don’t have quite the same sorts of memories as have been recounted by some above, though it did have some impact. But my first intense (for lack of better word) involvement in politics was the McGovern campaign in ’72.


Colin Danby 05.03.14 at 5:49 pm

I was another child canvasser for Eugene McCarthy and considered RFK an opportunist at the time. The arc of that year, from a hopeful Spring to a Fall that produced not only a Nixon victory but a strong showing for George Wallace (who came in 2nd after Nixon in my home state of North Carolina) was not easy. What is specific to the U.S. about 1968 is the level of racial backlash, though there are surely instructive similarities between DeGaulle and Nixon at that point – law and order, the honor of empire.


Meredith 05.04.14 at 5:19 am

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'”

My favorite part of RFK’s Indianapolis speech. I think I read that he always carried with him a copy of Aeschylus that Jackie had given him, which was why he was so ready with the quotations for that necessarily impromptu speech. Yes, a truly great one, and it did help (though not Newark, NJ, the flames from which I watched rise on the horizon). I, too, had thought of him before that as a bit of an opportunist. Soon he was dead. The racialization — yes, but then as now and always, deployed to distract attention from, especially, economic questions. No accident that MKL and RFK got murdered just as they were starting to bring home those questions.


Meredith 05.04.14 at 5:51 am

I had no idea at the time. Why would I? Peripheral vision catches only a few things. Boston Marathon 1968:


chris y 05.04.14 at 10:39 am

What we chiefly see here is the immense parochialism of the US commenters, who hijack the thread to talk about the assassination of a millionaire warmonger rather than the barricades on the streets of Paris.


John Garrett 05.04.14 at 1:45 pm

I don’t agree with the warmonger for RFK, but both at the time and in retrospect Les evenements de Mai were the closest the west ever got to the possibility of real change, and the only time (although it took a while) that all too briefly had left intellectuals, workers and unions sharing the same struggle. The posters and banners (I still have a 1968 rough printed collection of the posters) tell the story, and all of us on the left need this story of hope, perhaps especially now.



Davis X. Machina 05.04.14 at 3:18 pm

@ John Garret

“…in retrospect Les evenements de Mai were the closest the west ever got to the possibility of real change.

Even that wasn’t very close. Anyone old enough to remember 1968, and who watched OWS, knew how much difference the latter would actually make.

You could tell neither was going to be the beginning of a revolution — not nearly enough people were getting killed. That’s what ‘real change’ looks like.


mattski 05.04.14 at 4:06 pm

Germane to the discussion, in my view. And too little known.

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