Kristin Ross | Against commemoration: Unearthing the lives and afterlives of May ’68


Thread:In May ’68 and its afterlives (2002), you described France’s ‘68 as a “union of intellectual contestation with workers struggles.” Left formations today struggle to create programs of action that unite peoples of different sectors of society. What should the Left know about the political struggles that unfolded in May 1968 in France? What thought and action enabled the coalescence of forces in ‘68?

Ross: Well, that changes all the time, doesn’t it? The past is very unpredictable and its ability to connect with our current situations is often indirect and somewhat aleatory. When I wrote my book, for example, at the end of the 1990s, very little could be seen or heard about ’68 in France except a few reiterated, tired clichés, some unanchored invocations, and one or two grand abstractions. My books are always an attempt to intervene into the current situation, so when I decided to focus on how such a relatively recent and massive set of political upheavals could have been, in effect, “disappeared” in such a way, it was in part because of the veil that had settled over people’s’ memories was being shaken loose by the presence of workers once more in large numbers in the streets: the huge labour strikes of 1995.

When workers made their presence known in the city that winter, they not only forced a government crawl back over pensions, they also altered what could be seen and said about ’68.  Suddenly ’68 was no longer the failed panty raid (boys trying to get into girls’ dormitories) it had become by the time of the twentieth anniversary and was once again perceivable for what it was:  the largest largest mass movement in modern French history, the most important strike in the history of the French labour movement, and the only “general” insurrection western, overdeveloped countries had experienced since World War II.

The needs and the turbulences of the present moment have a big effect on what we can envision about the recent past. Right now, I would say that the proliferation of territorial struggles – land-based battles, often against large-scale, state-imposed infrastructural projects – creates a whole new and very vital connection to the long 1960s, which for me extend roughly from the Cuban revolution to the mid-1970s. I’m talking about struggles whose particularity lies in them being anchored in one place, one region. In the Americas, such struggles – whether the opposition to a dam on the Xingu River in Brazil in the 1980s, or the Zapatistas, or, more recently, the Standing Rock Sioux attempt to defend their lands in the Dakotas against an oil pipeline – such movements tend to have an indigenous base and leadership. But not always. Just last year, after a decade-long battle, a coalition of urbanists, dock-workers, students, and other townspeople forced the Chilean Supreme Court to declare illegal the government’s attempt to construct an immense shopping mall across the entire historic port neighbourhood of Valparaiso. In Europe, movements like the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes or the NoTAV movement in northern Italy resemble the Valparaiso coalition: they hold together and are held together by an extremely heterogeneous array of people:  different ideologies, different cultures, with no one sector in charge. Surely, such land-based movements of defense of the territory exist in Africa as well and will perhaps be discussed in future issues of your journal. But my point is that their existence, in either the American (indigenous-led) form or the European form, makes the two protracted wars of the long 1960s – the Larzac in France and the Sanrizuka struggle outside of Tokyo – enter with force into the figurability of the present. 

The 1960s, whatever else they were, are another name for the moment when people throughout the world began to realize that the tension between the logic of development and that of the ecological bases of life had become the primary contradiction of their lives.

The way they connect with present concerns has absolutely nothing to do with any fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of 1968; here I share with the late Daniel Bensaid a form of antipathy toward commemorations, particularly in the form they take in France. It has much more to do with movements like the ZAD and its astounding success in preventing an international airport to be built on farmland. Suddenly a new genealogy becomes visible.  The ten-year battle of sheep farmers in the Larzac region to prevent their land from being expropriated by the state to serve as an Army training camp appears to us no longer as the “tail end” or waning of the 60s, or as having less importance than what transpired in the capital. And from the Larzac we can begin to perceive the decade of highly exemplary, even Homeric battles that began in 1966 as farmers outside of Tokyo, nimbly supported by the far-left Zengakuren, (members of the National Student Union) fought the state expropriation of their farmland to be used for the building of the Narita airport for what I believe those battles truly were:  the most defining combats of the worldwide 1960s.

I now view the Larzac and Sanrizuka struggles as the battles of the second half of the twentieth century that reconfigure the lines of conflict of an era. Another way of saying this is that the 1960s, whatever else they were, are another name for the moment when people throughout the world began to realize that the tension between the logic of development and that of the ecological bases of life had become the primary contradiction of their lives. What these movements initiated and what the ZAD confirms is that defending the conditions for life on the planet has become the new and incontrovertible horizon of meaning of all political struggle.  ’68 was a movement that began in most places in the cities but whose intelligence and future tended toward the earth/Earth.

Now, it’s true that I had a glimmer of this idea back when I wrote my book, because I made a prediction in its pages that the day would come when an autodidact farmer like Bernard Lambert from Nantes would come to embody more fully the political aspirations and accomplishments of French ’68 than [then student leader and politician] Daniel Cohn-Bendit. That day has come. And in that regard, a text like Bernard Lambert’s 1971  Les Paysans dans la lutte de classe [Peasants in the class struggle], the first book to place farmers and urban workers in the same structural situation vis-à-vis capitalist modernity, bears comparison with canonical revolutionary texts like Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre [The Wretched/Damned of the Earth]or Simone de Beauvoir’s La deuxième sexe [The Second Sex].  A whole new political subjectivization emerges in Lambert’s text to join “woman” or “the colonized”: the paysan, or defender of the earth.

Resisting implies that the battle, if there ever was one, is over and done with, and we can only hopelessly try to ward off the overwhelming power we attribute to the other side.

And that practice of defense is something I think we can think about more closely, especially in its relation to the other political activity we are so frequently called upon to perform these days – namely resistance.  Why is defending so much more generative of solidarity than resisting? For it is clear that the contemporary movements I mentioned earlier have an enormous capacity to create solidarity across a wide range of different kinds of people, and a solidarity of a kind that is at least as interesting, and perhaps more interesting, to my mind, than anything that comes to mind when we talk about “the global south,” for example. Resisting implies that the battle, if there ever was one, is over and done with, and we can only hopelessly try to ward off the overwhelming power we attribute to  the other side. Defense, on the other hand, means there is something we have already that is ours, that we cherish, and that is worth defending.

And while what is being defended may start out as a piece of agricultural land, or an unpolluted environment, over time a whole host of other elements come to be included in what bears defending: the affective ties, sociabilities and new skills acquired in such struggles of long duration. Japanese farmers outside of Tokyo who began by defending their way of life learned in the process the true violence of which the state was capable; they learned, too, a vital solidarity with urban students and workers, who for their part had never given the slightest thought until then as to where their food came from or how it was produced.

The ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes is perhaps the most vivid example of a solidarity produced over years between very distinct components or groups involved in the struggle: old traditional farmers, young farmers, naturalists, petit-bourgeois shop-keepers, squatters, elected officials. The occupiers have a term for the way in which they have held such diverse elements together for so long – they call it “composition.” Composition is essentially a working alliance between autonomous entities – a coming together and staying together that adds up to no final orthodoxy, just a continuing internal eclecticism.  Composition is really nothing more than the fruits of an unexpected meeting between separate worlds, and the promise contained in the becoming-Commune of that meeting. Holding such diverse elements together, according to the occupants, “is more a question of tact than tactics, passion than sad necessities, and opening up the field than carving up the terrain.”

Thread: After 1994, South Africa entered a new, “democratic” political order. Much like France’s 1968, Apartheid has not “suffered from too little attention.” Yet, the “management” of the national, mainstream memory of Apartheid and it arising out of the colonial period of capitalism has been done in ways that often obscure the revolutionary histories and practices. The predominant authorship has fallen largely to the formerly radical, current ruling party, various previously militant figureheads and apolitical experts. What happened in the case of France? As you termed it in your book, what is at stake in the “management of memories” of revolt?

Ross: In France, it was the so-called left that “disappeared” ’68 – all the while they were making use of their participation in the movement to advance their careers and to justify their newfound reconciliation with the market. When they had succeeded in making sure that a structuring, anti-capitalist project no longer existed as the basis for defining the left, various turn-coat ‘68ers began to promote and repeatedly invoke new values like human rights. As the 1970s drew to a close, we witnessed a full effacement of politics by ethics, history by sociology, and ideology by culture. The appeal to human rights became a kind of moral or spiritual supplement to the rearmament of capitalism that transpired in France, beginning in the late 1970s.

But your description of the “management” of the struggle against apartheid’s memory makes me think more generally about the way in which emancipatory struggles, almost by definition, draw on energies and imaginaries that largely exceed a category like “the nation.”  Like pan-Africanism, these liberating imaginaries are pre-national or extra-national in nature, often hearkening back to a pre-capitalist moment, and yet they invariably come to be corralled back later into the national fiction, whether by the ruling party, or by opportunistic self-proclaimed “leaders” whose career ascendancy needs to get played out on a national stage.  “Neutral” or “objective” academic historians play a role in this reduction as well, at a later stage, in their chronic inability to think outside of the national narrative.  When you begin a story with the state, you end with the state.

This is how an event like the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the French state felt called upon to massacre tens of thousands of workers in the streets of Paris, comes to be regarded as just one of the more lively moments in the story of the making of the French Republic.

A state that wants to bury the sixties is much easier to deal with than one that wants to absorb and celebrate it.

And this is why unsavory characters like Richard Nixon or Nicolas Sarkozy, with their constant proclamations of the need to “obliterate” the sixties, are so much more preferable than their liberal cousins. A few months ago, I was summoned to the Elysées Palace to confer with a close aide to Emmanuel Macron about the young emperor’s desire to “celebrate” May ’68 this year. Not surprisingly, what he seemed to have in mind was a celebration of the usual neo-liberal themes put in place twenty years ago: the modernization of France, cultural transformation, the end of illusions, and so forth. When I told them (politely) that I couldn’t be bothered, all protocol was abandoned. They responded with a tirade of insults as though it were inconceivable that an invitation to the castle be turned down. A state that wants to bury the sixties is much easier to deal with than one that wants to absorb and celebrate it.

Thread: In the contemporary “leading” universities in South Africa, a colonial epistemology prevails. Theory is still taught as that which emanates from the North, whilst the South is but a case study and experience. The exportation of France’s 1968 often severs its relations with and position in the global politics of the time. The imperial and colonial conjunctures are rendered incidental. In your book, you reconfigure this geography when you wrote that during the late 1960s: “…theory itself was being generated not from Europe but from the third world. Not only was the figure of action, the militant peasant freedom-fighter a third world phenomenon – this, after all, was to be expected according to a standard international division of labor in which Europe and the West are the thinkers and the rest of the world the doers, the men of action. But “the wretched of the earth” – Mao, Guevara, Fanon, Cabral and others – had become, in this era of gauchiste reversal, the thinkers…” How did French ‘68ers position themselves in relation to global politics? What revolutionary theory and practice outside of France informed the production of dissent and revolutionary action locally?

Ross: Let me start out with a concrete example that I discuss more fully in my book. In 1967, film-maker Chris Marker assembled a group of film-makers and technicians to make a film against the U.S. war in Vietnam and in solidarity with the Vietnamese people. (The technicians, over 200 of them, worked voluntarily without salary). Marker and the other directors decided to present the first screening of the film, “Loin du Vietnam,” to striking workers at the Rhodiacèta plant in Besançon, and to leave time for a lengthy debate between workers and film-makers after the screening. What is more, Marker had incorporated earlier footage of the Besançon workers’ own strike and factory occupation into the Vietnamese narrative. So both at the level of the film’s montage and in terms of its dissemination and reception, a direct relation between the context of anti-imperialism and that of French worker-militantism was established. 

It was the ongoing war in Vietnam that made possible the merging of the politics of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism at the time in France. It created the sense that everyone – French workers and farmers, the North Vietnamese, and even French students were involved in the “même combat” against American imperialism.  Class struggle, only intermittently perceptible in the west, was seen to be already operative at the international level in the relations between the imperial powers and the neo-colonial countries. In the late 1960s, it was relatively easy to make the connection between the Vietnamese struggle and the internal class struggles in the west.  And the exemplarity of the Vietnamese in their struggle against American forces, with its David versus Goliath dimensions, leant a kind of triumphant or heroic aura to the figure of the third-world peasant that the western factory worker did not always exhibit.  As Sartre put it at the time, “The fundamental impact of the war on American and European militants was its extension of the field of the possible.”

This had everything to do with the fact that third-worldism as it was theorized in the French context – unlike, say, the British manifestation, which was tinged with a philanthropic or religious motivation – was understood primarily in terms of class relations. This fact alone gives some indication of the dominant role Marxism played in France since World War II as a frame of reference for work conducted in philosophy and the human sciences more generally. It also suggests why such a thorough de-Marxification as the one that occurred in France in the late 1970s and 1980s was deemed necessary.

Additionally, the French critique of American imperialism of the 60s and 70s was informed by a third-worldism that was highly specific. Anti-colonialism that developed in France did so in a country that clung tenaciously to its colonies through its own seven-year war in Vietnam, followed by another eight years of intense war in Algeria, and in a country that went on to become a far from disinterested observer of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Such an anti-colonialism developed perforce outside of the French Communist Party (which took a kind of “wait-and-see” position on Algerian independence), in far-left circles, where it combined with a virulent anti-capitalism.

Solutions to the problems of the third world could thus only be found in the replacement of the global capitalist system with a different economic order. “Colonial subject” and worker were fused into a single agent of class struggle, and all of the universalizing power of the proletariat was projected onto the rebellion of the colonized.

This theoretical perspective did not, of course, appear on the curriculum in universities. Just as you describe the current situation in South Africa, the universities at the time were immune to such perspectives (“Jamais plus Claudel!” was a ’68 slogan I only just heard recently that gives a kind of vivid picture of student attitudes toward university curricula of the time.). 

The third-worldist perspective was disseminated in [more marginal] places in Paris like editor François Maspero’s bookstore, “the meeting place for all the contradictions of the left,” as Maspero himself called it, where the large presence of Africans, American blacks and Asians in Paris could be felt on a daily level, and where translations of Malcolm X and works by Frantz Fanon or Amilcar Cabral rubbed shoulders with novels by Paul Nizan. I see Maspero’s politics of translation to be at the heart of what I called the “gauchiste reversal” – the fact that the third world came to be viewed in France and elsewhere as the place producing the thinkers and not merely the doers – of world revolution. His press produced the required reading for the French left, and there Asian and African thinkers, as well as texts from the U.S. Civil Rights movement and poets from the Caribbean, in cheap accessible translations, were on equal footing with French philosophers like Sartre (who not infrequently provided a preface to authors from outside France).

None of this was surprising or new to those on the left growing up at the time in Paris, but what was striking to me when I began to think about my book was how much this internationalist dimension had come to be intentionally reduced, even “disappeared” by the late 1980s. Not one of the many television commemorations of ’68 on its twentieth anniversary, for example, even mentioned the word “Vietnam,” for example, or made any reference to the anti-colonial context that had played such a large role in generating the political energies in France. It was that fundamental invisibility, along with the related invisibility of what was going on inside French factories in the 1960s, and not any kind of commemoration, that made me decide to write my book.

I decided to begin my history of ’68 and its afterlives not with the student uprisings in March 1968, as is usually the case, but with what was in fact the first demonstration of mass proportions in France in the 1960s:  the protest of Algerian workers against a state curfew on October 17, 1961.

What interests me most of all in general has to do with when and in what way aspects of the past become visible (or invisible) to us today. When and in what ways do the struggles of ’68, for example, enter into the figurability of the present?  Given the way in which the kind of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist momentum we’ve been discussing had been eliminated from the picture in the late 1980s, in favour of a kind of narrative of modernization and “life-style” liberalism, I knew I had to intervene quite squarely by making the international context highly visible from the outset.

When I first began my research on May ‘68 in France I encountered many French people who told me there was absolutely no relation between the Algerian War (and the violence surrounding its ending in Paris in the early 1960s), and the student insurrection a few years later. In many people’s minds a vast unbridgeable temporal chasm separated the turbulence of the early 1960s from the complacency that reigned as the decade was nearing its end, a chasm that enabled the production of such journalistic clichés as “68 was a thunderbolt in a serene sky.” 

This is why I decided to begin my history of ’68 and its afterlives not with the student uprisings in March 1968, as is usually the case, but with what was in fact the first demonstration of mass proportions in France in the 1960s:  the protest of Algerian workers against a state curfew on October 17, 1961. This was a protest that ended with violent police retaliations leading to hundreds of Algerian deaths, deaths that were themselves actively “disappeared” from the official record. It was in fact demonstrations like these, linked to the end of the Algerian War at the beginning of the 1960s, that politicized some of the [leading] French students – a minority perhaps, but a significant one – who took to the streets a few years later.

Beginnings matter. Beginning someplace else allows us to see and say something new about the entire unfolding of an emancipatory movement; it “denaturalizes” all of the myths of origin that have congealed around an event’s representation.  By beginning here, with the Algerian march, a kind of continuity between student activists and the anti-colonial and national liberation efforts that had preceded them becomes visible in a way that could not be seen previously, due to the fog produced by clichés like “France was bored.” Starting here, the frame then widens beyond the narrowly national story – something any consideration of a world-wide event like ’68 is obliged to do.



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