France

Obsolete Communism

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City Journal has published a collection of reflections on the revolutionary month of May 1968. The views on display are more varied than you might expect, given the magazine's neoconservative slant. I particularly enjoyed Guy Sorman's memories of the uprising in France:

Slogans painted on walls and an onslaught of posters with surrealist messages captured widespread attention. The most memorable posters were those asserting that it was FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. Others offered more cryptic slogans like SOUS LES PAVÉS, LA PLAGE ("Under the paving stones, the beach") and COURS CAMARADE, LE VIEUX MONDE EST DERRIÈRE TOI! ("Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!"), an ironic paraphrase of Marxist ideology. Slogans were the only program, and they called for individual freedom, anarchy, nonviolence, and enjoyment of the here and now.

The longterm effect of '68, Sorman argues, was that "an individualistic society replaced the hierarchical one." The results could be seen everywhere from sexuality ("May '68 was the moment when sexual liberation coincided with the availability of the birth-control pill") to business ("Many '68 leaders became entrepreneurs and contributed to the new managerial style") to the left:

In the ideological world, Marxism was the most obvious victim. The May '68 leaders were anti-Communist. Those who claimed to be Maoist, as some did (without any understanding of Maoism's true nature), were, above all, anti-Stalinist. The revolts in Eastern Europe rendered Marxism comatose, both as an ideology and as a mode of governance. While another 20 years would pass before the Communist Party gave up power in Eastern Europe, the seeds of its demise were sown in '68. True, there were a few deviations: the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and the guerrillas in Latin America. But these were ideological last gasps.

That isn't, of course, the only political legacy of '68. Sol Stern's contribution to the forum describes Tom Hayden's naive support for the Viet Cong, and Christopher Hitchens' essay reveals the many ideological paths a soixante-huitard could take. But Sorman is right: A revolt against Communism was brewing, sometimes even among people who considered themselves Marxists. What looked like a month of triumph for the left wound up advancing something that is beyond left and right.

Footnote: How did free-market libertarians react to the rebellion in France? Many wrote it off as another spasm of collectivism, but not everyone. Here is Murray Rothbard's brief review of Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit's book about the uprising:

The story of the almost-victorious French revolution of May, 1968 by its heroic young anarchist leader. The case for an anarchist rather than a Bolshevik revolution.

By the way: This is also the anniversary of May 1958, another month of turmoil in France. Where are the cinquante-huitards?

NEXT: Giving Them the Rope to Hang Themselves

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  1. It’s “COURS CAMARADE, LE VIEUX MONDE EST DERRI?RE TOI!”, not “COURS CAMARADE, LE VIEUX MONDE EAST DERRI?RE TOI!”

  2. Where are the cinquante-huitards?

    You mean the Gaullists? They won. L’?tat, c’est lui.

    This is France; they’re on their fifth constitution, and that’s only counting the republics (none of the empires, communes, etc.). As for ’68, if a movement can’t even muster the force to innaugurate a new consititution in France, I don’t take it seriously.

  3. Thanks for catching that, Jean-Francois. The typo was mine, not Sorman’s.

  4. Wasn’t May 1958 the only time in the 20th centruy that french generals, commanding french soldiers, defeated an invading force?

    Still might not count with the invading force commanded by french generals too . . .

  5. There’s also Tout va Bien by Godard, who was pissed because he thought the Communists were too establishment.

    Guy – you might, ya know, actually read some history once in a while. Perhaps about the First Battle of the Marne, 1914 or the Italian invasion of France in WWII.

  6. Hmm, having lived with and closely observed the happenings of ’68 in Germany, I must say that I am now even more disillusioned than I was then.
    Nothing the Dutschkes and Kleinhanses pilloried, resonated with my reality. Their outrageousness looked like mindless disrespect to me. “Unter den Talaren der Muff von 1000 Jahren.” Had not the brains above the gowns brought us enlghtenment and finally democracy? Sure there was the Third Reich, but the post-war FRG leadership, Heuss, Adenauer, Schumacher et al. had far more strength of charcter than anyone since, particularly those of ’68, who now inhabit the cozy and lucrative corridors of the EU. E.G. Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
    What about the sexual revolution? It is being turned back wholesale. New prohibitions and ever more abrogation of liberty is common now.
    Those same people that wanted it all overturned, waffled around not knowing what to replace it with and then let it be replaced with a host of pinkish PC and “human rights” crap. Or perhaps they did the replacing, I don’t know which.
    But the breaking point came for me in ’68 when the Viet-Cong flags were waved, American institutions trashed and Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi_min was the chant on the street. I couldn’t understand it. Had the never taken a look across the fence in the East, across the wall and the death strip and past the guard towers? None so blind! I must have been the only one in my class who had a South Vietnamese flag on the wall in his room. That mindless anti-Americanism then on display has not changed. Still manifest. Which makes me think that the 68ers have not changed, just become fatter and more complacent. Shame on them!

  7. BP,

    1914 fails because the french used British troops to absorb the attack.

    You might want to read your second link too. The Italians certainly were not defeated, especially since they continued to occupy france, along with the Germans for a few more years.

    If you are doing nothing but a casualty count, then you are using the wrong metric. By that method, the Confederacy won the Civil War.

  8. Had the never taken a look across the fence in the East, across the wall and the death strip and past the guard towers?

    Most 68ers believed, rightly or wrongly, that the movements they supported or defended – Ho Chi Minh, Mao, Allende – were NOT like the Moscow Marxist-Lenninists, and were not supported by them. The argument that it was foolish to lump all leftists, even all communists, together with Moscow was central to the New Left’s identity. “Stalinist” was sometimes used to mean “leftist who won’t let us smoke pot,” demonstrating exactly the rejection of commuinist authoritarianism and the embrace of individual liberty that Sorman points out.

  9. Guy – first I’ve heard of the Italians “occupying” France. There were some token annexations of French territory. As for the rest, it’s quibbling over definitions.

  10. Damn pig dog Americans! Crushing the dreams of communists everywhere! Have they no shame?

  11. BP,

    Annexation without occupation? Interesting concept. Can I do that to the federal park land right outside my window?

  12. “rightly or wrongly”

    Can there be any debate that they were wrong? If there is such a thing as non-authoritarian communism I must have been asleep for decades and missed it.
    I rather believed then and believe now that ’68ers are ideological control-freaks. Of others, naturally, not themselves. I totally disagree with Mr. Sorman that the leaders of ’68 were anti-communist. If that were true they’d have been even more stupid than they were.

  13. Guy,

    Maybe. I am of course assuming the Homestead Act is still in place. Erect a structure and leave it standing for 3 years and the land is yours.

  14. BTW, Joe, there wasn’t much pot smoked. Hash yeah. Mostly stretched with what looked, smelled and tasted like camel shit.

  15. martin,

    There’s more than one question here.

    Can the be any debate about whether the Allende regime was distinsguishable from the Stalin regime?

    Can there be any debate about whether Woodstock was actually NOT “an orgy organized by the communists?”

    Can there be any debate about whether the Vietnamese were motivated more by nationalism and anti-colonialism than doctrinaire Marxist-Lenninism?

    Yes, there can very easily be a debate, one that those arguing for the positions outlined about would win handily.

  16. On the other hand, it was fairly common among 68ers to hold out Mao as the anti-authoritarian counter to Stalinism, mainly because China had, at that point, turned against the Soviet Union. Naive “enemy of my enemy” thinking could mislead people into thinking that being anti-Stalin made Mao anti-authoritarian.

  17. Maybe. I am of course assuming the Homestead Act is still in place. Erect a structure and leave it standing for 3 years and the land is yours.

    Can I use that control tower and terminal that is already there?

  18. On the other hand, it was fairly common among 68ers to hold out Mao as the anti-authoritarian counter to Stalinism, mainly because China had, at that point, turned against the Soviet Union. Naive “enemy of my enemy” thinking could mislead people into thinking that being anti-Stalin made Mao anti-authoritarian.

    And of course Mao wasn’t anti-Stalin. The Sino-Soviet split came after Stalin’s death, and Maoist doctrine venerated the Man of Steel. Though you wouldn’t guess it from those ’68ers who seemed to think Maoism was virtually identical to anarcho-communism.

  19. Errr . . . I think so. Don’t quote me on that but . . . yeah, sure. Know one’s sure which civilization even built these “control towers” or these “terminals” so don’t worry about native American’s showing up wanting their land back.

  20. Though you wouldn’t guess it from those ’68ers who seemed to think Maoism was virtually identical to anarcho-communism.

    Maybe they were under the impression that a large number of people ‘chose’ it, just like them?

  21. Know=no

  22. . . . so don’t worry about native American’s showing up wanting their land back.

    Ahem, I are one!

  23. My grandmother is mexican so . . . Cousin! How goes it?

  24. (“Many ’68 leaders became entrepreneurs and contributed to the new managerial style”)

    They must have all retired by the ’90s, because I’ve worked with a few French companies, and not one of them was recognizably “entrepeneurial” by American standards.

  25. “The results could be seen everywhere from sexuality (“May ’68 was the moment when sexual liberation coincided with the availability of the birth-control pill”

    Changing attitudes towards sexuality and a liberalisation of society in general could already be seen in the 1950s (at least in Germany).

    The 1968er were totalitarians at heart, not some sort of reformers who made society more free. There’s a great book about the 1968er by G?tz Aly, which highlights their megalomania, disdain for liberalism and disdain for a free society in general. (unfortunately only published in German thus far: http://www.perlentaucher.de/buch/28912.html)

    It sucks to see that even a libertarian publication like reason buys their claims now and ignores their real goals.

  26. And of course Mao wasn’t anti-Stalin. The Sino-Soviet split came after Stalin’s death, and Maoist doctrine venerated the Man of Steel.

    Not to mention, Mao – Mao himself, not just Maoists – was strongly opposed to the Viet Minh/VC/NVA that the 68ers defended.

    Maybe they were under the impression that a large number of people ‘chose’ it, just like them?

    That’s very insightful, Guy. People in 1968 were closer to the Chinese revolution than people today are to Reagan’s election. There were, no question, a very, very large number of Chinese people who backed Mao, which can easily turn into “the people supported the revolution” in the mind of someone with a simplistic, us-and-them, black-and-white political philosophy.

  27. My grandmother is mexican so . . . Cousin! How goes it?

    It goes-o o well-o!

  28. Guy, once you annex it, it won’t be parkland anymore, will it? It’ll be your yard.

    As far as youth movements & ’68, that was the height of the Cultural Revolution – a deliberate attempt to take power from the old (except for Mao himself) & give it to the young. That must have resonated with a lot of the youth movements of the time.

  29. The 1968er were totalitarians at heart, not some sort of reformers who made society more free.

    It’s dangerous to generalize so broadly. I recommend reading Sorman’s essay in combination with Stern’s and Hitchens’. A more multifaceted picture emerges.

    That said, I’ll certainly be interested to read Aly’s book when it is available in English.

  30. I don’t understand the rationale of the debate: Which type of communism did influence the ’68ers , Stalin or Mao or Uncle Ho.
    They didn’t understand any of them. Had their heads up their behinds and never took them out.
    In Germany a big argument against “the establishment” was that the old folks were all Hitler’s unrepentent collaborators and as such had no legitimacy. The “revolutionaries” thought they owned the moral high ground. All while waving Mao’s little red book around. Supporting the very guy who dwarfed the Nazis in killing more Millions! All without the slightest hint of irony or self-consciousness. To this day!

    I’m sure many rally did think that if they lived in Mao’s China of the cultural revolution, they could choose what to think and support. Sweet innocence of youth.

  31. Oh – and I agree that the changing attitudes toward sex (and much else) can be traced back way before 1968. But ’68 itself has roots that go back way before 1968. The soixante-huitards did not emerge from nowhere.

  32. Guy, once you annex it, it won’t be parkland anymore, will it? It’ll be your yard.

    And, if successful, the government will have been defeated, just as the french were by the Italians in that link you gave me.

    I suspect that if I did actually try to annex Grevelly Point park and Ronald Reagan National Airport, you folks should be able to watch the progress on the news.

  33. Gravelly* Point.

  34. It’s not really a debate, martin. There aren’t really any sides or positions here.

    We’re just discussing history.

  35. Jesse,

    Next Reason party we’re gonna have to discuss this topic.

    Sure, the picture of any such event is never single-faceted. But please, what were the burning social problems that required a revolution? That could not be solved by some less destructive means. All I read in the essays is shallow feel-good stuff Hitchens: “No: we demanded the right to hurt the feelings and ruffle the susceptibilities of others.”
    Yep, that’s what it was all about. Protest for protest’s sake. These guys weren’t troubled to underpin their discontent with some solid moral foundation. Fight Allende, admire Castro. Speaks for itself!

  36. More blathering from the world’s most important generation, the Baby Boomers!

  37. That was a fascinating series of recollections. Interesting mishmash of individualist and absurdist ideas with collectivist nonsense. The sense I have is that there were a handful of organizers (Hayden, etc.) who were products of the Old Left and were authoritarians at heart, while most of the folks following them were almost completely the opposite. The easiest way to tell them apart is the relative lack of humor shown by the collectivists. They had Big Ideas to promote, after all.

  38. LT Nixon | May 5, 2008, 2:46pm | #
    More blathering from the world’s most important generation, the Baby Boomers!

    Once the Baby Boomers die off history wiil cease to exist as the rest of us, mangled wretched Morlocks that we are, will still be around only for the sole noble purpose of intering the Last Generation of Humanity and caring for their tombs.

    There is one possible hope. Steve Jobs has
    a secret fetus farm outside of Chattanooga he has been using to replace every cell in his body in a quest for eternal youth. If his plan succeeds, he will be our God Emperor, infused with the wisdom of his peers who have passed on before him.

    It will be impossible for generation on down the line to escape the gaze of the God Emperor of the Boomer Collective as the task of History is now complete.

  39. Five to one, baby
    One in five.
    My Expedition’s got
    Four wheel drive.

    They’ve got the guns
    But we’ve got Viagra.
    Already won, now we’re
    Gonna linger!

    Old stay strong while the
    Young get wronger.
    I’m sixty-four, be here
    Decades longer.

    Watch us posture, listen
    To us whine.
    Gonna hang around it’s
    Still our time.

    All Right!!!

  40. just as the french were by the Italians in that link you gave me.

    Ok, last comment on this. If the “Italians” defeated the French in WWII, then you have to give up the “WWI doesn’t count, because the British helped the French”. The Germans defeated the French in WWII. The Italians were ineffectual, and without the German invasion, would have gotten nothing. The Italians had a 4 to 1 advantage in men, and only made it 5 miles into French territory.

  41. “As for ’68, if a movement can’t even muster the force to innaugurate a new consititution in France, I don’t take it seriously.”

    Ooh, le snap!

  42. Guy Montag,

    The actions of the French Sixth Army were critical in the First Battle of the Marne. That doesn’t discount the contributions of the BEF of course, but it does mean that without the Sixth Army (and the Parisian reserve that was thrown in at the most critical of moments) the war would have been over within a matter of weeks or perhaps days.

  43. Maybe. I am of course assuming the Homestead Act is still in place. Erect a structure and leave it standing for 3 years and the land is yours.

    Repealed in the 70s….you cannot even get land from any government agency through an adverse possession claim…something you still can do with private lands.

  44. The most illuminating account of the events of May ’68 in France is _Worker-Student Action Committees France May ’68_ by Fredy Perlman and Roger Gregoire:

    http://www.geocities.com/~johngray/peractil.htm

    Perlman and Gregoire were present in Paris at the time and took part in the movement.

    Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets (http://www.bopsecrets.org/ ) includes many other important texts about May ’68.

    *****

    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo/

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