Obsolete Communism


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?