May ‘68: how a sociologist sees it now

Interview with Marc Jacquemain, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the ULg
By Marie Liégeois

Basta EN“May ‘68”, it was 40 years ago this year. From a personal, and from a sociological point of view, how do you feel about the events of that year?

I was not personally involved in the things that went on, but I feel that they concern me, because I was a teenager at that time and I grew up during that period of great social creativity, between 1965 and 1975.

However, I think after all this time that references to “May ‘68” have become irritating. Certainly, something extremely important happened in France during that period but the movement was much larger than that. At the level of all industrialized countries, we saw the emergence of a new generation. The “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia, the movement against the war in Vietnam that arose in the United States, “May uprising” in Italy: the movement took on forms and levels of intensity that were different in different countries, and which were related to causes that were wider and deeper than those of “May ‘68” in France alone. There was a massive shift in all industrialized countries.

What were the consequences of this shift? What caused it?

The center of this movement concerned the emergence of youth as a force in politics. During the 1940s, around 90% of students belonged to the privileged classes of society. They did not function as a political factor as a group; the workers’ movement did function as a political factor. During the 1960s, we saw the first indications of a shift that would cause the workers’ movement to occupy a secondary position in the future. The traditional parties of the workers’ movement did not understand this revolution, which they called “petit-bourgeois showing-off”. On the other hand, the generation that was produced by the baby boom gradually began to arrive on the political scene, product of the “Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975)” or the “Golden Sixties.” A large generation, much better educated, socialized during a very long period of world peace (in the United States and Europe), raised during a period of continuing progress, and continuing economic growth, and enjoying a real level of comfort. There was a television in almost every home, automobiles were owned by all social classes, man walked on the moon. A generation for whom “tomorrow is always better”.
A generation, therefore, for which everything appeared possible.

Pavé Dead TimeWhat were these young people searching for?

This generation built up little by little a stock of capital of political values no longer based upon material riches space – which they already possessed – but upon personal growth, social relationships, becoming free, the desire to change one’s life. Inglehart, in “The Silent Revolution” (1977), speaks of “post-materialist values” in the sense that the political values of this generation were focused less on an effort to obtain security and riches, and more upon a need for expression. In the ambiance of May 1968, this movement developed in two directions: people aspired to be free, and there was a great impetus towards brotherhood, through a great moment of collective communion. That was the birth of open individualism. There developed from that themes like the environment, feminism, sexual liberation, self-determination, equality between men and women, an emphasis on the Third World, and a new questioning of religion and also forms of regional autonomy.

At that moment, how did these conflicts show themselves?

These revolts, at that moment, did not give rise to utopian slogans (“It is prohibited to prohibit…”, “Beneath the paving stones, the beach…”) but to social agreements, such as the Grenelle agreements in France. These agreements changed working conditions, and they marked a great victory for the workers. But that was not enough to satisfy the movement. The conflicts continued, and moved into another area: workers were not just demanding higher wages, but a change in their way of life.

What was the real impact of May 1968?

May ‘68 was made up of a series of events that had consequences, even in places where no revolt took place. Without wishing to discount the importance of the events themselves, I think that May 1968 was not the cause but rather the symptom of transformations that were taking place. The claims made by the actors were very utopian. Nonetheless, they took place in a period of retrenchment for capitalist society. May 1968 thus contributed to change.

Student demonstration

And over and above the events themselves, what has endured? What was underlying the revolts?

Under the surface waves there was an undercurrent that affected all industrialized countries. These rich countries had something in common: a young generation in conflict with societies, which in terms of their everyday relationship with authority were still living in the mentality of the Ancien Régime. The broad undercurrent basically consisted in an attitude of opposition toward authority. Sexual attitudes and attitudes about what each of us should do with his or her life changed a great deal. People stopped going to the priest or the doctor with their eyes closed. Each person wanted to become master of his or her own life. The nature of labor was transformed in a profound way. But the paradox is that these claims regarding freedom in relation to work became the fuel that re-energized capitalist society, which was looking for a new motive force. At that time “Henry Ford” capitalism, which joined together productivity, organization of labor and State intervention, was gradually falling into a crisis. Why? Technological progress had made it clear that there was less of a need for “obedient robots” and more of a need for workers that were capable of initiative. The claims made by young people – especially young workers – and the changes occurring in businesses would thus converge. Social relationships had been centered upon authority, but from then on they would be defined in terms of a competition between individuals.

Pavé BossYoung people protested education, police tactics, family values, the position of the church…Did they really put an end to relationships of power?

The young generation of the late 1960s revolted against the idea of authority that was not justified. This generation demanded that institutions justify themselves, something which was completely new. But just by shaking up institutions, you have not put an end to power; you have transformed it. Today the power of social constraints is not weaker than it was in 1968, but it is different. Certain pillars of authority lost power, such as the church and the State. Businesses became stronger.

And so there was disappointment…

May ‘68 seems to leave some people with the impression of having been a big disappointment. The institutions that were attacked might have been oppressors in some ways, but they were also protectors of some citizens, especially the weakest. The protesters didn’t see that when they tore down institutions in order to promote individual freedoms, they were also taking away some forms of protection.

Enragé ENCan one compensate for this bitter feeling?

One thing is sure: nobody would want to go back to living in society the way it was before 1968. In those times, for example, homosexuality was strongly condemned, nothing had been done with regard to the new place of women in society, moral prohibitions were the norm and social relationships were deeply authoritarian. The groundswell of May 1968 contributed to the institution of a “democratic dialogue” that introduced democracy into new areas of society. Social relationships were greatly changed by this. The common element in the story is a gain in freedom at all levels, but with some loss of protection. The feeling of disappointment certainly was apparent, because people in the movement had believed that all power relationships would be thrown down. Actually, it was just that relationships of authority were shaken up. Power now gets exercised in different ways than previously.

To join autonomy and solidarity together, in the broadest possible way: doesn’t that sound like utopia to you?

It depends on how far you push each one of them. This is a personal point of view on my part, but I think, based on the writings of the young Marx concerning communist society, that it is utopian to believe that you can join together a complete liberty without constraint on one hand and on the other a perfect solidarity in which people’s interests are almost fused together in one. In my view this does not correspond to any possible reality, unless it would be the short time spent behind the barricades of the revolution, which was the utopia of May 1968. The fundamental idea that was not included in the slogans of May 1968 is that you cannot get rid of all institutions. The way in which the collective and the individual negotiate with each other can change, but it is always necessary, and the collective norm is always experienced, no matter what you do, as a constraint by some individuals. You can increase the amount of democracy, but no one can imagine a society without institutional mediations. Even a left-wing critic of Marx like Cornelius Castoriadis has seen this quite well.

These institutions, how are they doing today? What has the society of today inherited from 1968?

They are having different kinds of effects, in the end. I’m thinking of exaggerated hygiene, which protects individuals against themselves. But no one protects people anymore from the most dangerous thing, which is the competition between individuals. Personal interest has become the prime social norm. The result is a society in which the strongest have gained a great deal, and in which the weakest have been made even more fragile. In symmetrical fashion, the freedom of expression has exploded, but at the same time, it is at this moment difficult to express oneself significantly because one’s communication gets drowned in a welter of too much mass communication that promotes the omnipresence of emotions. There are more ways to express oneself, but one’s words can’t be heard as well.

Pavé PoetryDoes it seem proper to you that this anniversary should be commemorated?

May 1968 is a reference point, a moment when people broke open some locked doors. There is some meaning in looking back on the events of that time as a moment when citizens rattled the leaden walls that surrounded society, even if they did not accomplish everything they hoped. People are judged morally according to their intentions, and these were understandable in that situation, but you are judged politically on the consequences, and that is what determines the future.

What perspective can we adopt, then, in the face of these observations?

We are no longer in the atmosphere of May 1968. We have to use other levers – which may consequently cause other problems. You cannot go back in time, but the evils of today must not be ignored, they must be fought. Individualism is a fait accompli in our societies. But nothing prevents us from thinking in terms of an individualism in which individuals recognize mutual solidarity with others. This to me is the biggest challenge in the attempt to preserve a livable society in European countries.