Why did the 1968 French student rebellion fail?

Last Friday I saw a remarkable movie, “In the Intense Now,” about the French student uprising in May, 1968, showing why at the time all things seemed possible and what went wrong.  I didn’t go to the movie with the intention of posting a review of it, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The filmmaker, João Moreira Salles, is a Brazilian who, in 1968, was a small boy living in Paris with his parents.  The movie consists of archival footage mainly from France, but also from Czechoslovakia and Brazil and home movies his mother took on a visit to China in 1966.

He captures the joy the students felt in breaking free of the constraints of a mediocre bureaucratic society and their hope that all things were possible.

He shows their leader, the cocky, smart-alec Daniel Cohn=Bendit and I can share their pleasure is seeing him in a TV panel show, telling off the pompous intellectual authorities.

The student riots were followed by a series of strikes by factory workers all over France.  I always thought that the students and workers in France, unlike in the USA, were comrades in arms.

But Moreira Salles showed a delegation of students marching to a factory occupied by strikers to show their solidarity, only to have the workers mock them as “future bosses.”

The striking workers, he contended, were revolutionary in a way that the students were not.  He contrasted a graffito saying (approximately – I didn’t make an exact mental note at the time) “All power to the workers,” with a graffito (again – I don’t remember exactly) saying something about following the desires of your heart and not advertising slogans.

The first graffito was a revolutionary slogan.  The second was not.

He contrasted political demonstrations that are intended to bring about revolutionary charge with political demonstrations that are merely intended to express emotion.  Holders of power feel threatened by the first, but can tolerate the second.

He showed footage from August, 1968, showing the Soviet occupation of Prague, which shot furtively, mostly from behind curtained windows, and the later footage of the funeral of Jan Palace, a student who committed suicide in 1969 by setting himself on fire in order to protest the re-imposition of dictatorship, which was shot openly.

Moreira Salles said the difference was that, in August, the Soviets were fearful of a real uprising, and, the following January, they were not threatened by allowing the Czechs to vent their grief.

He showed three funerals in France—one of a student killed by police, one of a worker killed by police, and one—never before shown in documentaries of the 1968 uprising, of a police officer murdered by rioters, who was crushed against a wall by an empty truck aimed at him with bricks on the accelerator.

He also showed a funeral of a worker killed while protesting the new Brazilian dictatorship.  The funeral was a political demonstration; burial of the worker was almost an afterthought.

Moreira Salles showed a conciliatory speech by President Charles De Gaulle on TV, which was followed by the largest student riot so ar, and then a radio broadcast a ew days later, taking a hard line against breakdown of law and order.

The second broadcast was followed by a pro-government demonstration, consisting mainly but not entirely of members of the prosperous classes, which drew more people than any of the student demonstrations.

In the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, it’s important to think about the difference between a serious politics with a strategy to bring about change, and a psychodrama politics limited to expressing emotion.

Then again, what good is a revolution without spontaneity and joy?  Emma Goldman, who was a true revolutionary if anybody ever was, said she didn’t want to be part of any revolutionary movement in which she couldn’t dance.

And, after all, it wasn’t the students who tamed the French workers’ movement.  It was the Communist-dominated trade unions, whose leaders had long ago compromised with the status quo.

I don’t draw a simple moral from the movie, but I find a lot to chew over in my mind.

For me, the film was marred by inclusion of footage from Moreira Salles’ mother’s visit to China as a journalist for an art magazine.  The implication was that China represented the revolutionary ideal that workers in France, Czechoslovakia and Brazil were striving for.

The Cultural Revolution was a dystopian nightmare, whose damage to China took decades to repair.  Backlash against the Cultural Revolution produced a rejuvenated capitalism and a rejuvenated totalitarianism.

I am not a revolutionary or an advocate of violent revolution.  I am an elderly unskilled, unarmed property owner who could not survive if the present economic system ceased to function. My hope, which may be a forlorn hope, is a change within the laws of the existing system.

∞∞∞

It’s interesting that “In the Intense Now”, which came out in 2017, was once available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and other Internet sites, and isn’t available now.

“In the Intense Now” was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.   The next one in the series will be “American Socialist: the Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 19.

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