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The event of ‘May 68’ revolutionized thought and strengthened the possibilities of resistance

The philosopher Étienne Balibar views the uprising in France in 1968 as the point where we went "from a monolithic conception of power centered around the state, to a conception of the multiple forms of domination." According to the already influential Marxist philosopher, the coordinates of liberating thought were thus changed permanently

Written by Anna Cornelia Ploug

Translated by David Baxter

Originally published in Danish by Information

Étienne Balibar still remembers the optimism of the time. In May 68, he was a newly hired lecturer at a university in the Parisian Banlieues. He was active in the uprising that sought to create a new society through unification of middle-class protesting students with the working class. The big challenge was just getting the two groups to work together.

Finally, one day, one of his friends from the University of Besançon called and said that now the unity was there, now they had found common ground, now people had to hurry to come over!

However, due to the general strike, the trains did not run, and there was a shortage of petrol. When the group finally got a small car, and after more than 400 kilometers of driving from Paris, they arrived at the university. However, the revolution was over: the workers still did not think there was any reason to join the students’ rallying cries. The desire for such a ‘convergence des luttes‘, that is, a confluence of struggles, had gone unheeded.

“How I wish we had achieved a convergence des luttes,” he says, hesitating a little.

“Don’t write about my pessimistic prediction.”

Anna met the 76-year-old Étienne Balibar in London, where he regularly teaches at Kingston University. In the 1960s, he was part of the Parisian inner circle around the leading Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. They wrote the influential work Reading Capital in 1965, which has influenced critical thought ever since.

Despite the defeats of May 68, Balibar rejects the widespread rumor that the uprising was petit-bourgeois and a pseudo-revolution. It is simply not true that there was an “absolute disparity between what happened on the streets, and what happened in the factories,” he explains.

The whole of May (of 2018) has been filled with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of one of history’s great revolutionary ventures, a celebration that cannot avoid being filled with contradictions. When one tries to highlight and reactivate a progressive potential, one simultaneously risks that the celebration ends up writing off the revolutionary project as a curious relic of the past.

Then the memory of the French May of May 68 turns into an aesthetic glamorisation of barricades and cobblestones, slogans painted in cursive and clean-shaven, photogenic bachelor-cheeks. In short: the fantasy of Paris and the century in which the political still allowed certain movements.

The question that remains is whether or not one can use the mythical images of the events strategically today?

In connection with the university occupations and demonstrations, during the recent months, against French President Macron’s reforms of the education system, a new slogan has been found on banners and walls: ‘Ils commémorent, on recommence’. (They are remembered, we start anew).

Étienne Balibar takes the floor.

“The latest news from France is very depressing,” he says. The railway workers’ strike, in connection with Macron’s reform programme, has not won enough public support. The same applies to the students who have marked the anniversary, as well as the president’s first year in office, with protests.

There are other reasons to rally and protest because “Macron is a Thatcher in purple tie,” as Balibar puts it.

“But he’s a very smart guy – and a dangerous opponent. He recently said that there would be no confluence of struggles, simply because the workers and students have no common interests,” he says.

“Of course, you can say yes, they have [common interests], namely the fight against neoliberalism, but it remains very abstract. It’s just words – it’s not how people experience it in their own lives.”

When Balibar looks at the myth of May 68, he sees a double-edged sword because the myth “gives energy but also creates illusions,” he says.

“The myth of May 68 indicates that no situation is completely frozen and no power structure is perfectly resilient. On the other hand, seen negatively, there is the danger that one will just try to repeat May 68, and this time, just bring it to an end”.

The last option is not a real option, but ‘a dead end’. But May 68 has opened new ways for thought, and therein lies a potential.

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

The revolution of thought

Together with the other Althusser students, who among others counted well-known names such as Jacques Rancière and Jacques-Alain Miller, Étienne Balibar throughout the 1960s read works by, among others, Foucault, Lacan and the young Marx. Politically, the acquaintances were brought together by the Algerian freedom struggle, and together they published the journal Cahiers pour l’analyse (1966-1969), which stands as the culmination of structuralist thought.

In a theoretical-historical context, May 68 is often identified as a breach with structuralism and its all-encompassing systematics. In the trend that later received the grateful term ‘poststructuralism’, the subject was reinvented as the eternally displacing and maladaptive disorder of the structure.

Others point out how the movement’s anti-authoritarian impulses marked a cessation with the party as the agent of communism, and at the same time, initiated a revitalisation of contemporary Marxism.

According to Balibar, two things, in particular, are central to understanding what May 68 meant to thought in a French context – or what thought did to itself. Because, as he emphasises, there was not first a fact, and then an interpretation – the philosophy and the political struggle are mutual and intimately linked together.

Firstly, the notion of where power is located and how power is perceived is changed. Secondly, we acquire a new concept of revolution. Instead of thinking of radical social change as something that takes place gradually in a lengthy process, one begins to theorise the idea of ​​a sudden rupture, a so-called event.

From exploitation to many power structures

Balibar emphasises that May 68 was also, in theory, a challenge to authority, normativity and control in all its shapes. Rather than solely identifying the opponent as the state and capital, a multitude of diverse authoritarian structures was now designated: from the school (Bourdieu and Passeron), the prison (Foucault) to the family (Deleuze and Guattari), and with it, sexuality and the patriarchy.

“The Marxist centralist concept of power as vertical is a reflection of the bourgeois state and is disturbed by the fact that there are multiple forms of domination,” Balibar says.

Where the left had previously thought through Marxist terms such as ‘exploitation’ and ‘imperialism’, one thus sees the seeds of the discourse that is well known to us today and which informs itself with concepts such as racism, homophobia and sexism.

“This insight has been revealed by feminists, namely, that our societies are indeed hierarchical, but that they can not be characterised by one sole structure of dominance. It opens up the possibility for alliances and intersections”, he says.

“But it also generates a problem because political resistance has an unflinching tendency to choose one viewpoint as more important than the others.”

To put it bluntly: for the feminists, it becomes the patriarchy, for the postcolonial theory, the north-south axis, and for the Marxists, the Labour theory of value or the concept of capital.

But it is not enough to grasp one explanatory model, and today the whole picture has become more complicated.

“Now we no longer have one central authority issuing orders, but social regulation and governing everywhere, behind which, of course, there are forms of power such as multinational corporations,” Balibar said.

“Here we are dealing with a kind of the third player which is neither ‘the one’, the state, nor ‘the many’, the Foucauldian microscopic forms of power.”

Affects vs program 

May 68 also gave momentum to a new philosophical category, a shift in the very conceptualisation of the revolution – and here we return to the event that thus, replaced the notion that radical social change was a process of transitional phases.

In the text, May 68 has not taken place; Deleuze and Guattari characterise the uprising as “a pure event, free from any form of normal or normative causality”. That something is an ‘event’ means that it fundamentally breaks with what has been thought so far, and simultaneously changes the coordinates for what is possible. The event can be post-rationalised, but not predicted. It is pure creativity.

On the extra-parliamentary left, a similar idea has been circulating in recent years: the notion that radical innovation arises by virtue of a functioning community and cannot be planned.

This was seen in the French Nuit-debout movement in 2016, which arose in connection with a neoliberal labour reform, and whose unofficial main theorist Frédéric Lordon put forward the characteristic wording “Nous ne revendiquons rien” (We make no demands).

But Balibar is no longer enthusiastic about this and other occupiers’ unequivocal focus on the present and their scepticism of political programmes.

“Maybe it will disappoint you, but I do not idealise that notion of absolute spontaneity,” he says.

“Lordon’s wording clearly expresses the fact that every revolt consists of two elements: the experience of a new space of opportunity, and a heavy strategic dimension that is ‘political’ in another sense, where it is crucial to get from A to B, and the requirements are not what you experience, but what you achieve,” he explains.

“This distinction between the affects of the present and linear temporality is a knot of contradictions.”

Another example of a contemporary trend, which is similar to the spirit of May 68, in its rejection of programme-Marxism is the French writers’ collective The Invisible Committee, which almost serves as a practical extension of Giorgio Agamben‘s philosophy in their focus on collective ‘life forms’ and what, they call ‘destitution’ of power: Instead of working towards a ‘prise du pouvoir’ – overthrowing (state) power – they oppose the coercion of power and the cultivation of parallel, alternative communities. In their eyes, a real social breakthrough can only come into the world through a living and experimental practice: The new world is not just the realisation of a known vision.

“The invisible committee, yes, it is the latest brand of the anarchist tradition,” says Balibar.

“It is not possible to completely eliminate anarchism from the progressive tradition in which we belong, but having said that, it also contains a core of truth. However, in my opinion, it is not a sustainable strategy to change society – only to blow it up.”

“I’m very old-fashioned,” Balibar apologizes.

“I do not think one can change society without a plan.”

We remember those who leave traces

Back to the memory from May 68. One often encounters the narrative that the events at the time were first and foremost a youth uprising, a cheerful father-struggle led by the Guy Debord-reading youth. But according to Balibar, it is a rough simplification.

It is also a question of who leaves traces.

“The millions of workers, young and old, who occupied factories in what was the largest general strike in France’s history do not have the same visible life as the artists who invented new styles, transformed the theater or wrote poetry and painted exclamations on the walls.”

“These things remain visible. They may be forgotten from time to time, but they always come back.“

Balibar’s teacher Althusser said that philosophy – ultimately – is “class struggle in theory” and was hastily accused of theoreticism by both his own party (the French Communist Party) and by the Maoists.

Althusser à rien, as a pun played (sert à rien means ‘serves no purpose’).

A trend in May 68 that also divided Althusser’s own ‘disciples’ was the idea that middle-class students should go out to the factories and create alliances and learn from the reality of the workers.

“I fully agree with the part of the criticism which among others has been put forward by Rancière when he sparred with his master, and which concerns the pedagogical model, where theory comes first and then it is applied,” says Balibar.

“The critique of this linear model is completely justified. But many people, in my opinion, had drawn the wrong consequence, namely that one should completely stop theoretical work, and even be ashamed of being intellectuals.”

“It was something we had inherited from Lenin and before him the tradition of the German Social Democracy. A view that is quite precisely captured in Karl Liebknecht‘s motto ‘studieren, propagandieren, organisieren’(study, propagandise, organise.)

“Just as I believe that intellectuals should not teach others anything, I believe they have a role to play: they must use their capacities to address the issues that preoccupy our friends on the other side of the globe; try to understand why there is no simple solution – and where there are openings.”

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh


About the author

Anna Cornelia Ploug is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Roskilde University (Denmark) and works with G.W.F. Hegel and the epistemological and political issue of ‘problems’ and ‘problematics’ in transdisciplinary knowledge production. She is the co-editor of the Danish radical left-wing magazine Eftertryk Magasin and has previously written about students protests in Critical Edges.

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