comments

Continuing '68

Ceder-un-peu-cest-capituler-beaucoup-84b9c-

This 1988 text is collected in in the 2008 book 1968, fins et suite and has appeared online at Mediapart. Translated by David Broder. 

‘My god, in whom I still don’t believe

Perform another miracle

It’s high time for it

Or better still, several miracles,

(For just one is never enough)

And help these unfortunate French intellectuals

So that it finally becomes their new fashion

To stop running after every intellectual fashion.

Help them overcome this flair for style

That turns them in the blink of an eye

From good, much-needed heretics

Into miserable renegades.

Help them no longer be blinded

By the sheen of their brilliant formulas

Which hides how inane the content is.

And let them play devil’s advocate so well

That they grow horns and cloven hooves

And long appendages (just on the tail, that is)

Help them acknowledge that no argument in the world,

However clever, can excuse snobbery, arrogance and racism,

Like anti-Semitism and anti-Arabism,

And that none of the legitimate criticisms,

Of the stupidity, the crimes and the failings of the Left,

Can, through an about-turn of the imagination,

Justify them siding with reaction.

For the path the Right takes or follows

Does not offer any way forward for France,

Or for the world.

Help them understand,

Even if Marchais blocks their view 1

And however horrible the fiasco in Afghanistan

That it is nonetheless stupid to cry ‘Afghanistan’ or ‘Gulag’

When people are talking about Nicaragua

Or South Africa,

And believe that this has achieved anything.

Help them, God, before it’s too late,

To understand that even the most elegant way of licking

Reagan or Weinberger’s arse 2

Cannot replace the naïve quest

For a way to save humans

And to save the world.

— Erich Fried, 1988 [3]

A lot of ’68er intellectuals have indeed proven to be mere weathervanes. Some believed in an imaginary cultural revolution, droning on with psalms from the Great Helmsman’s Little Red Book, after they became convinced that the wind from the East was going to permanently win out over the wind from the West. They saw the masses, caught in the middle, being used to help settle accounts among bureaucrats, and took this for an anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian uprising. They had nothing but hatred for the army and contempt for the church. Yet here they are, extolling the glories of the army and singing the praises of the church. They had dreamed of borderless spaces, and yet here they are defending the great wall of Christian civilisation, celebrating roots, the land, the dead.

Others grew impatient as they queued at the dispenser of a blocked society. Their great hopes and dreams were satisfied by François Mitterrand’s electoral victories. The renewal of the state apparatuses freed up jobs that could meet their frustrated youthful ambitions. They embarked upon careers — in politics, academia, finance, the media — even when their elders were still there. The promotions under Mitterrand faithfully maintain the liberal daily grind of a centrist Left that is increasingly bourgeois.

As one of the slogans of ’68 prophetically put it, "Giving in a little is capitulating a lot." These people have given in a lot. And capitulated a lot more so. This intellectual and moral collapse imposes an opposite duty: a refusal to be reconciled. It calls for a contradictory (mean) spirit that allows us to go on, to persevere despite everything, loyal to the event in which the people made itself heard. ‘68 really was just a beginning. A lot more than the anonymous voices who proclaimed it as such at the time probably imagined.

Notes

1. Georges Marchais, leader of the French Communist Party

2. US Defence Secretary under Reagan

3. Erich Fried, 1921-1988, a Jewish poet and writer exiled in Britain in 1938 after his father died at the hands of his Gestapo torturers.