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Theory Turned Sideways — Eric Hobsbawm on May 1968

Huw Lemmey10 October 2012

In memory of the late Eric Hobsbawm, who passed away last week at the age of 95, Verso are proud to reproduce here the eminent historian's contribution to the June 1st, 1968 edition of Black Dwarf. Concerning itself with the unexpected eruption of outright class conflict in France, a society seemingly prosperous and at social peace, Hobsbawm's short yet influential article focuses on the changes in attitude to the State, Party and Trade Unions during May '68.

 Theory Turned Sideways – Eric Hobsbawm

What has happened in France is marvellous and enchanting, except of course to the Times which naturally regards a strike at the Bank of France as a conclusive evidence of the breakdown of civilisation. For us old members if the fan-club, it proves that Paris still has star quality. It is more than a place with three-star Michelin restaurants, traffic jams, cleaned buildings and the kind of dress shops which the Duchess of Windsor goes to. It can still put up the barricades, often on the very same spots where they went up in 1848, in 1871 and in 1944. It is a great moment for sentimental Francophiles. But even the most sentimental among them must wonder whether the whole business is merely a gallic freak. Does it show the way to the rest of the world? It would not be the first time that Paris has done so. I think it may do so now.

The events in France are totally unexpected and totally unprecedented. That is the first thing to grasp about them. Practically all serious observers of politics have long taken it for granted that classical revolutions will no longer happen in the advanced western countries, either because there is unlikely to be no massive revolutionary discontent, or because such discontent is likely to be confines to marginal minorities like students and blacks, isolated from the rest of the people. Exceptions were conceivable, but none of them seemed to have much bearing on the present situation. Least of all on France, which until three weeks ago seemed at peace, rather successful in its international affairs, with a stable government, solid finances, and prosperity, which means that the poor were at any rate not notable worse off that the usually expect to be. A revolution has never yet broken out under such circumstances. Yet in Paris it did. Or­­ anyway something happened which might well have turned into a revolution.

More precisely, two things which are remarkable enough, though the second is more amazing than the first: the students rebelled and forced the government to retreat, and the workers followed their example.

Student rebellion is fairly common these days. The novelty of the Paris situation lies in a, the extent of the mass mobilisation of the students (not to mention their teachers and parents) and b, the extent of public support for them, which eventually forces the unions and the Communist Party, reluctantly, to line up behind them. In this situation there was not much the government could have done, short of starting to shoot; and it is an increasingly well-recognised fact of politics that massacring students is much trickier that massacring blacks or even white workers. Nevertheless, nobody expected that the workers would imitate the students. But they did, once again in spite of the feet-dragging of their unions and party. It was the young workers who began the occupations of factories which has since snowballed into a general strike. And though the unions have taken it over, it was and still is essentially a spontaneous, grass-roots movement.

Could it have happened anywhere else except in France? In its specific details, no. No other country has revolution as part of its national tradition, so that in certain circumstances it comes as natural to put up a barricade as to raise the red flag. The French workers may be no more revolutionary in their practical demands than the British, but their ancestors for five generations back have made revolutions, and they have a bad conscience about not making one themselves. Hence it is possible for the students, by example, to 'put the working class traditions back into the working class' as someone has said.

On the other hand, leaving details aside, the students rebelling against a society which offers them all its prizes, the workers forgetting about their HP debts to establish, by their spontaneous mass action, that life is more than overtime earnings and holidays in Palma: these are not French but potentially international phenomena. We knew—though the politicians didn't—that people are not contented. They feel that their lives are meaningless in consumer society. They know that, even when they are comfortable (which many of them are not), they are also more powerless than before, more pushed around by giant organisations for whom they are items and not men. They know that the official mechanisms for representing them—elections, parties, etc.—have tended to become a set of ceremonial institutions going through empty rituals. They do not like it—but until recently they did not know what to do about it, and may have wondered whether there was anything that they could do about it. What France proves is that when someone demonstrates that people are not powerless, they may begin to act again. Perhaps even more than this: that only the sense of impotence is holding many of us back from acting like men and not zombies.

An archive of Black Dwarf can be found at the Red Mole Rising website

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