Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fifty years on

In the recent history of radical progressive politics the student unrest of the late '60s holds a very special place. The momentum for social, cultural and political change, although diffuse in its aims, spread like wildfire particularly across Europe and North America leading to sit-ins, demonstrations and student occupations, often resulting in fractious clashes with the State. This unrest was relatively short-lived but arguably it sowed the seeds of some more lasting social reform as well as a variety of struggles which continue to this day. One of the more colourful, violent and potentially revolutionary manifestations of unrest took place in Paris - culminating in civil disturbances between May 15th and May 29th, 1968 - fifty years ago this week. The dissatisfaction of a growing student population, subjected to archaic regimes and routines was vociferously expressed. Their protests were supported by many public intellectuals, artists and cultural luminaries. At the same time a simmering resentment of the economic conditions under the Gaullist government led to a General Strike and for a short while, at least, France teetered on the edge of revolution - or chaos, depending on your point of view. Les événements (the events), as they came to be called, had a profound effect on French intellectual life. Those working in the social sciences that look to contemporary European thinking - and particularly to what is sometimes dismissively referred to as 'French theory' could, and perhaps do, reflect on this. Like it or not, les événements profoundly influenced Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and many other too. Given that we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of these events it's hard to work out whether we should mourn the lost opportunity, celebrate their impact or draw a veil over those heady times. I half expected more media interest. The BBC's Vive La Revolution was rather disappointing being more about Joan Bakewell than anything else. An extended interview with one-time student leader Tariq Ali is a lead feature in this month's London Review of Books. Although That Was The Year That Was is both informative and analytical it again tends towards the autobiographical. Hazanavicius's movie Le Redoutable (or Godard Mon Amour) adopts a different approach by explicitly focusing on New Wave filmmaker and political activist Jean-Luc Godard, offering a humorous and rather unflattering portrait of his political activity. This has the effect of lampooning the political rhetoric that circulated around the events May '68. History is inevitably selective and what matters for one generation may not for another. However, it would be a loss if les événements ended up being the story of a few individuals. In fact it would be a grand irony.  The very least we should expect is a reprint of Julian Bourg's excellent study 'From Revolution to Ethics'.

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