Régis Debray’s epigrams on May ’68 are certainly amusing. All the same, they are dubious and even rather mystifying.
What the ex-prisoner of Camiri says in substance is that if the May movement had not existed, French capitalism would have had to invent it! In his view, ‘the logic at work in the uprising ten years ago was one not of rupture but of reconciliation’ . . . the general strike ‘served as a factor tending to stabilize fundamental class relations’; and it is from 1968 that ‘in Europe, the West wind began to prevail over the East wind’, and so on.
If we are to believe him, in short, the ‘cybernetic’ crisis of May ’68 constituted a decisive moment in the self-regulation of French society, in the process of liquidating its archaisms and in the tailoring of attitudes to the new demands of the accumulation of capital. This is the real meaning, the obective function, of the explosion of May, unknown to its protagonists, who ‘accomplished the opposite of what they intended’.
It does not require genius to see where this reasoning falls down. In situating the truth of May in what has become of May ’68, and of certain sixty-eighters, Debray simply ‘forgets’ one little detail: the movement did not triumph, but was defeated by a bourgeois reformist counter-offensive, whose broad lines can easily be retraced.
It is this counter-offensive, not the movement itself, which shaped post-May. To attribute to the general strike of May–June ’68—even in an unconscious and ‘objective’ relationship—responsibility for the various palliatives introduced by the victors to consolidate their domination, and avoid new explosions in future, may be a joke, but it is not in good taste. This kind of reasoning could be used to claim that the Popular Front strikers of ’36 were clearing a path for an American New Deal, accelerating the concentration of capital, giving birth without knowing it to ‘indicative planning’ ` la française, the public financing of private accumulation and the mercantilization of leisure . . .
No, the protagonists of May ’68 did not accomplish ‘the opposite of what they intended’. They did not accomplish what they intended either, because their bourgeois reformist adversaries did not give them time: on 30 May, after General De Gaulle’s fighting speech and the reactionary demonstration which followed it, the leaders of the workers’ movement agreed to resolve the conflict in reformist fashion by imposing a general return to work and referring their capitulation to a general election organized by the régime. The far left lost the initiative from that moment, and the movement was liquidated in three
As one would expect, the Giscardo—Gaullist coalition, invigorated by electoral victory, undertook a long-term reorganization of its system of domination, whose weaknesses had been spectacularly exposed by the May explosion. This reorganization was of transparently ‘hegemonic’ type, designed not to crush the popular movement by means of despotic power, but to weaken it by division, and channel it towards programmes and modes of action which would be compatible with the functioning of the capitalist system. In consequence it implied certain concessions to the new aspirations revealed by the movement, or rather, a specific processing of these aspirations to defuse their subversive potential and exploit them as factors tending to consolidate the régime. This is the ‘rational kernel’ of Debray’s thesis. In its hegemonic aggiornamento the dominant class uses the stick, but also the carrot. In its way and for its own purposes, it takes into account the new popular expectations and demands. It is in this distorted, alienated form that Power turned the May movement to its advantage. The prototype of this move was to be found in the Edgar Faure law reforming the University—passed almost unanimously by an Assembly of crs-blue elected in June ’68—which instituted, behind a smoke-screen of ‘autonomy’, ‘co-management’ and ‘multi-disciplines’, competitive universities on the American model. The same measures led to the re-launch of ‘participation’, the removal of General De Gaulle in the spring of ’69, the blueprint for a ‘New Society’ proposed to Frenchmen of goodwill by Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the ideal of ‘advanced liberal society’ erected by Giscard d’Estaing, and so on.