When Poetry Ruled the Streets

— Christopher Phelps

When Poetry Ruled the Streets:
The French May Events of 1968
by Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman
Albany State University of New York Press, 2001,
192 pages, $19.95 paperback.

WHAT IS TO be imagined?

Imagine a revolution carried out for the creative reconfiguration of everyday life. Imagine a revolution against the boredom and “happiness” of acquisitive consumer culture, against the banality of television, against the monotony of work, against alienation and domination, against bureaucracies, red and corporate.

Imagine a revolution for equality and freedom, for liberation personal and political, for art, life and love.

Armed with just these preposterous fantasies of a wide-open future, young rebels in France during May 1968 won the hearts of a country, brought into being a revolution of a new kind, and very nearly toppled the capitalist state.

“The bourgeois revolution was juridical,” proclaimed a prominent declaration. “The proletarian revolution was `economic.' Ours will be social and cultural.”

The outcome was, shall we say, not so imaginative. Both in France and the United States, most of the rebels of 1968, now starting to turn gray at the temples, have long since settled for the juridical, making peace with the bourgeois order. The “realistic” left presided over the left's decline.

The authors of When Poetry Ruled the Streets, Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman, are unrepentant `68ers. Participants in the May events, today they teach in North American universities. In this slim book, they revisit their radical passions and dreams, their hopes and aspirations, in 1968.

They have refused across the thirty years to come to their senses, to accept that the epithets of “sentimentality,” “utopia,” and “totalitarian,” as any fool knows, forbid revolution. So it is that they have created the best book in print on the events of May 1968.

When Poetry Ruled the Streets sparkles with unabashed sympathy for the libertarian socialism of the student and worker movement that rocked France in 1968.

The first half of the book, a cogent and lucid narrative, explains how French students challenged university authorities, called on workers in the factories to strike, and in turn created an upsurge of work stoppages that brought the ordinary activity of the society to a complete halt. The second half contains an ample collection of translated documents that illuminate the revolutionary politics and consciousness of 1968.

Reform to Revolution

The May struggle emerged in the unlikely quarters of Nanterre, a minor outpost of the French university system. After a police crackdown on students protesting against “modernizing” reforms, there arose a student occupation of the campus, then the official closing of the university.

The struggle quickly spilled over to the Sorbonne, the crown jewel of the French academy, where further harsh reprisals by police and the university generated widening support for the student movement among Parisians.

The immediate demands of the student movement were the release of the arrested students, reopening of the universities, and withdrawal of police, but the movement's total goals were far more sweeping. The students sought a critical university in the service of the people and, beyond that, a social and political revolution.

As the crisis escalated, barricades were constructed out of cobblestones, over one million marched in the streets, and students urged industrial workers to occupy their factories. Young workers obliged in plant after plant, often against the wishes of union leaders, and the situation approached the dimensions of a full-scale socialist revolution.

Feenberg and Freedman are excellent not only in capturing the spirit of the 1968 revolutionary left in slogans, posters, and documents, but also in detailing the treachery of the largest political party of the French left, the Communist Party, and its trade union federation, the CGT.

In direct contradiction to right-wing fantasies of Soviet-backed subversion, the Communists put a brake on the revolution of 1968. French Communists still looked to the Soviet Union as a model and were heavily shaped by the Popular Front experience of the 1930s.

Because of their hunger for respectability to maintain their electoral standing (a chimerical strategy even in the most placid conditions), the Communists held with ferocity to their reformism.

They resisted strikes against workplace authority, encouraging instead settlements for wage increases. They branded the revolutionaries “ultraleftists” and “adventurists.” In the end, their policies aided and abetted the conservative regime of Charles de Gaulle in his quest to restore bourgeois stability and order.

Looking Beyond Nationalization

In addition to demanding that workers be satisfied with narrowly economic gains, the CP held out the political eventuality of nationalization of industry.

In today's climate, talk of nationalization seems leftist, but to the revolutionaries of 1968, state ownership without more profound transformations was simply a stealth vehicle for the creation of a “red bourgeoisie.”

The student rebels objected to technocracy -- the notion that a meritocracy of formal education and technical skills legitimized the rule of administrators and managers over workers and others -- whether practiced by Communist and social-democratic bureaucracies or by capitalist management.

Feenberg and Freedman astutely observe that the very presence of a socialist political culture in France, as manifested in the working-class electoral support for the CP, was crucial to the form that the 1968 revolution took.

Disappointment with the Communist movement did not engender conservatism but rather aspirations for a more consistent politics of equality, for bolder opposition to capitalism. (This process, incidentally, is comparable to American youths' radical turn in the sixties after their disenchantment with liberalism.)

French radical students and their allies on faculties and in factories sought a socialism far more democratic and transformative than statist Communism offered. Theirs was a visionary politics of worker control, “self-management,” as the French phrase went.

The idea was that workers should engage in direct workplace governance through workers' councils, taking on decision-making through common deliberation and representative bodies subject to recall.

The Idea of Self-Management

Workers' power was not just an intellectual projection. It came alive in the actions of the workers themselves in the occupied factories of 1968. After a time the occupations entered a phase of “active strikes” -- not merely disrupting capitalist production, as ordinary strikes do, but restoring production under radically democratic self-direction.

Many intellectual and political influences permeated this culture of workers' self-management. Expressed in a poetic language, the 1968 revolution owed much to the French revolutionary idiom.

It also reflected a variety of radical currents, with red flags and black flags, anarchism and left socialism, existentialism and surrealism, Trotskyism and Maoism, Situationism and Leninism, all represented.

The slogans “permanent revolution” and “cultural revolution” painted on the walls of Paris were used with accuracy, or misunderstood, or interpolated and imbued with new meanings altogether.

There is something valuable in this pluralist revolutionary politics as a model for a post-Seattle left, but Feenberg and Freedman are, in one of the weaker aspects of their book, not very attentive to spelling out far left differences.

They refer obliquely to “groupuscules,” but do not provide the groups with names, explain their origins, or specify their politics. Perhaps they presume that contemporary readers would not comprehend these finer gradations, and they may be right, but an attempt would have been welcome, nonetheless.

The authors' own fondness is primarily for the “council communist” tradition of spontaneity and self-organization, although they are very delicate about expressing that affinity.

Why the Collapse?

The main weakness of When Poetry Ruled the Streets is that it contains no extended postmortem. Apart from references to the appalling role of the CP and to students returning home for the summer break, they provide no explanation for why the joyful explosion of May 1968 collapsed so rapidly and decisively.

This may in part be because of the authors' approach to spontaneity -- admirable in democratic instinct, naïve in organizational terms. Whatever the cause, the book is without any hint of what tactics or methods might have brought about a different outcome; without conjecture about how the state could have been upended along with the universities and factories; and without analysis of how worker self-governance could have been sustained across time.

Given the cynicism of young readers today, who generally are aware of many social problems but resistant to radical political action as unrealistic, this is a grave fault. The romance and poetry of revolution alone will not suffice to win many over in an epoch still wary of great dreams.

Another deficiency of When Poetry Ruled the Streets is that it tells the French story in isolation, with insufficient attention to international context. Can the French events be comprehended without the Tet Offensive (Vietnam), without the announcement by President Johnson that he would not seek another term, without Prague (the Soviet-crushed reforms in Czechoslovakia), without China, without Columbia University?

The poetry of May 1968 was inspired by the world. To begin in extreme local French focus at Nanterre without at least tracing the contours of the global radicalization renders inexplicable the pace of unfolding events.

Feenberg and Freedman do use a wider lens from time to time. They explain very well, for example, that as the profound 1968 challenge to the ossified left gave way to Eurocommunism and the Socialist Party of Mitterand, the result was broken promises and conciliation of neo-liberalism.

The electoral triumphs of the French left were an advance over Gaullism but a dead end for the socialist imagination.

Feenberg and Freedman do not, however, explain why French social thought came to focus upon the merely cultural, as the linguistic turn took hold among intellectuals, as corporate consumer capitalism absorbed and embraced hip culture, and as class struggle receded in social thought.

When Poetry Ruled the Streets brilliantly restores the elan of a vital moment in twentieth-century history. Its primary weakness is nostalgic, evoking the spirit of 1968 without placing it in adequate perspective.

That error, however, is not nearly so damaging as the more commonplace fault that it avoids: the sixties generation's self-repudiation, whether by making revolutionary hope seem an absurdity or by pitting the “good” early sixties against a “bad” late sixties.

No one, in any case, can really blame Feenberg and Freedman for being drawn to the potentialities of a moment when political graffiti announced that “beneath the cobblestones is the beach,” and pamphlets called for “a revolutionary commune of the imagination!”

Fantastic, indeed -- but irresistible. “All power to the imagination!”

ATC 99, July-August 2002