On May ’68

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Michael Löwy

MICHAEL LÖWY IS the author of numerous works on socialist thought from Marx to the present as well as on liberation theology in Latin America. This interview was conducted by and first appeared in the Greek newspaper Elefterotipia.

Q. You have described the spirit of ’68 as “an intoxicating mixture, an explosive cocktail composed of various ingredients.” Which do you consider as the most important among those ingredients?

Michael Löwy: Probably a strong feeling of rage against the established order, the capitalist system, the brutal hierarchies of bourgeois society, the patriarchal family, the colonial and imperialist wars. The youth wanted, as Hamlet, to right the wrong of a time out of joint.

This rage, this protest, this indignation combined with a deep mistrust of authoritarian or bureaucratic institutions and parties; it could take romantic, utopian and/or revolutionary forms, it could inspire Marxist, Anarchist or Radical Democratic political currents, but it preceded any political standpoint. In fact, such a moment of negativity, in the dialectical meaning of the word, is the necessary starting point of any movement for social change, of any rebellion or insurrection.

Q. Which of those components do you think are still alive and active and how do they affect the international developments socially and politically?

ML: All the components of the anti-authoritarian spirit of May ’68 are alive and active today, but in different forms, around different issues, with different forms of expression. History never repeats itself; each generation has to find its own style of rebellion.

Some of the specific components of the 1960s political radicalism have faded away: the illusions on “real existing” socialist models (.e.g. China), the overly optimistic expectations of immediate change. But others, such as Feminism or Ecology, are more significant now than in the ’60s.

Internationalism has also undergone a change: Today in the Global Justice movement, we have not only the solidarity with struggles in the South — e.g. the Zapatistas — but mainly a common struggle against common enemies: neoliberalism, imperialist wars, the World Trade Organization.

Q. In 2002 you had stated that one of the most important components of May ’68 was the “revolutionary romanticism,” which you consider as “a rebellion against modern capitalist society, in the name of pre-modern social and cultural values.” Whom do you consider as its heir today?

ML: Well, I would give an example from Latin America: the Zapatista movement in Mexico — a phenomenon that has been received with sympathy and support all over the planet. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has been struggling, since its uprising in January 1994, against neoliberalism and its ruinous “free trade policies. In fact, it is a rebellion against capitalist “modernization,” rooted in the “pre-modern” communitarian traditions of the Maya indigenous people of Chiapas.

This is both a modern revolutionary movement — with a significant Marxist background — and the expression of the indigenous collectivist and democratic traditions and culture. This unique combination makes the EZLN one of the most fascinating examples of a contemporary “romantic revolutionary” movement. The speeches and writings of Sub-Comandante Marcos give a poetical expression to this alchemy between the past and the future.

Q. French May is often considered as a total negation (of capitalist society, institutions, family, working ethics, conformism and so on). What about its “positive” content and proposals?

ML: There was no common “proposal” in the movement, but common values: solidarity, freedom, social (and gender) equality, horizontal democracy. Struggle itself, insolence, refusal to submit, revolt, protest were valued as such. Support for Third World struggles, anti-colonial revolutions and socialist experiences — Cuba, Vietnam — were also part of this common agenda.

Some people raised specific proposals of educational reform, factory self-management, women’s rights, health-system reforms; others proposed revolutionary change, with a socialist (Anarchist or Marxist) perspective. These propositions were eagerly discussed, but not necessarily shared by all.

Q. You have mentioned a “deep ethical and political gap” in the life of many persons who had participated in “May events” who today have become managers of capitalism. How do you explain this contradiction?

ML: Not all participants in the events have become “managers.” Many — such as my friend Daniel Bensaid, one of the founders of the March 22 Movement in Nanterre —are still active in the revolutionary movement. Others ceased to be militants, but remain faithful to the ideals of their youth.

But it is true that many have reconciled themselves to the bourgeois order, and some have even become ardent supporters of neoliberalism, anti-worker “reforms” or U. S. imperialist expeditions. They could do so only by abandoning, denying or “betraying” their former values, their youthful rebellion, their previous ethical and political convictions.

Considering the economic and political power of the bourgeois system, its capacity to coopt, corrupt or integrate intellectuals, it is not surprising that this happened, in times of defeat, demoralization or decline of the movement. Similar developments took place after the defeat of the French Revolution, of the Revolutions of 1848, of the Paris Commune.

Q. Do you think that today’s mental and cultural environment is proper for the development of new revolutionary or vanguard ideas?

ML: After a long period of decline, under the powerful neoliberal offensive which culminated after the fall of the Berlin wall — supposedly “the End of History” and “the Death of Utopia” — we can see the first signs of a new wave of radical upsurge.

Its main expression is the new international movement for Global Justice (altermundialista in the latin languages), which was expressed in the great anti-neoliberal mobilizations (1999-2000) of Seattle and Genoa, and in the World Social Forum. It is a very diverse “movement of movements,” including a vast network of social movements, as well as different militant leftist currents.

This is a very favorable cultural environment for the development of revolutionary ideas. The Movement is very heterogeneous, but it has a strong radical component, who clearly see that the enemy is not only the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund but the capitalist system itself. Revolutionaries can build on this widespread anti-capitalist feeling to propose their own radical, socialist, libertarian, feminist and ecological alternative.

Q. Given the historical differences, is there any possibility to live again a kind of a new May in the next years?

ML: In fact, we had many significant upsurges since May ’68, mainly in Latin America, from the Sandinista insurrection of 1979 to the Zapatista uprising in 1994, and from the upheaval in Buenos Aires in 2001 to the Oaxaca Commune of 2007. But there will be no “new May”, as there will be no “new Paris Commune” or no “new October 1917.”

One of the beautiful aspects of revolutions is that they are always different and unexpected.

Insurrections or mass upsurges in the future will take, inevitably, new, unpredictable and surprising forms. But the revolutionary traditions of the past, from the French Revolution of 1789-93 to May `68 will always be present, in one way or the other, in the minds and the hearts of the future insurgents.

ATC 136, September-October 2008