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"68 thought" and its legacy - has it run out of steam?

Jasmin Singh27 August 2015

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Below is a translated script of an interview featuring Elisabeth Roudinesco and Marcel Gauchet. Read about intellectual revolt, structuralist breakthrough and the burgeoning neoliberalism of the late sixties. Featured on the Le Monde website first and translated by David Broder. 

How did you came across what we call ‘68 thought’

Elisabeth Roudinesco: In 1966 Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things came out at the same time as Jacques Lacan’s Écrits. These works were a literary and theoretical vanguard that offered a new reading of history on the basis of structures. There was something innovative here, like what happened with Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945: a new engagement. But this time, it took place in the academy, more than in politics, through a new way of teaching. Back then, I was an undergrad at the Sorbonne, studying in the Literature department, which was terribly rigid in its academic conventions. The professors there thought that modernity had stopped at the end of the nineteenth century. The students like me who were reading the Nouveau Roman and discovering new approaches like Michel Foucault’s or Roland Barthes’s were in rebellion against this dusty old kind of teaching. It was impossible to talk about the Nouveau Roman in the classroom. And at university back then, we didn’t even study Marcel Proust! In 1967–68 the feeling arose among the students that we were better than the teaching staff, and in particular the linguistics professors, who were disdainful of people whom we admired like Roman Jakobson or Claude Lévi-Strauss. Paradoxically, we were looking for good teachers – true masters, and not standard-issue teachers repeating the same course incessantly.

That said, ’68 thought did not exist – that was something constructed after the event. Reading Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things I discovered an author who was at the same time a philosopher, a historian and a writer. He wrote in his own style; and this was something with real meaning. It was magnificently written. At the time I was also reading the Hellenists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. But I was perfectly aware that these authors were not all alike, and that there were theoretical conflicts among them. That was what I liked – the possibility of the debate arising. For me May ’68 was above all an opportunity to cast off the bad teachers. 

Marchel Gauchet: Elisabeth Roudinesco is right to recall the academic dimension of May ’68, which was also an intellectual revolt against completely fossilised universities that were way out of sync with an extraordinarily productive intellectual scene. Whatever I later came to think of this galaxy of writers, they did allow me to get stuck into intellectual life in an enthusiastic way. 1966 was the breakthrough for structuralist thinking. It had an earlier precursor in Lévi-Strauss, but it was in 1966 that it became a powerful project with Lacan’s re-launching of psychoanalysis and literary theory’s recovery of the linguistic model, not to mention the brilliant philosophical nebula revolving around that. Like a lot of other people, I had the feeling that we were witnessing the emergence of a unified theory of the human sciences. We had the impression that we could bring together a theory of the individual subject that had been reworked by psychoanalysis; a theory of society reworked by Lévi-Straussian structuralism; with the whole thing resting on the most specific science of human production: language [langage]. Faced with this new world opening up, the official university looked like an ossified institution that had been left in the past. May ’68 was a movement characterised by an extraordinary appetite for knowledge. All sorts of echoes served to provide this theoretical élan with a vast repercussion, since it was a movement animated by an ultra-democratic spirit. 

The same theoretical wonderment, but major political differences: why is that?

Marcel Gauchet: I differ from Elisabeth Roudinesco on the political terrain. Among the writers we’re discussing, there was one who I first read with interest, only quickly to understand his limits – and that was Louis Althusser. At that time, the great political division among those identifying with the intellectual avant-garde was between Communists, who were in the majority, and the ultra-Left, which was in the minority. Thanks to the ins and outs of chance meetings I was able to draw on the tradition of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort’s group Socialisme ou Barbarie. In fact there were two May ‘68s. The first was politically Leninist, whether Communist, Trotskyist or Maoist. The second is more difficult to label, but we could term it ‘libertarian’, with its spontaneous, anarchist or ultra-Left variants; and I was with them.

Elisabeth Roudinesco: When I joined the PCF it was already being de-Stalinised. Louis Aragon, for example, had already criticised everything from the inside, all the while remaining a member of the Party – much like Althusser. What the Communist Party meant to me was the heritage of the October Revolution and the Popular Front, the French Revolution and all the history that I loved. Moreover, the Party was opening up to debates on structuralism and a critique of the university, particularly with the La Nouvelle Critique journal’s debates at the Abbaye de Cluny, discussing Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The Party was gradually making progress toward signing the common programme [together with the Socialists]. Paradoxically, Althusser advocated the return of Leninism, a new reading of Marxism, though in some of his writings he was arguing the opposite. But politically the PCF was already social-democratic, and I think that that explains its break with the [1972–77] Union of the Left [with Socialists and the Left-Radicals], which was obviously a matter of getting the Party back under control. That said, the word ‘totalitarianism’ did not make up part of our vocabulary, instead we spoke of communism’s failure. I was very late in reading Hannah Arendt, and it was through her that I understood what it meant. 

Marcel Gauchet: Both existentially and intellectually, that term is where we diverged, because for me the word ‘totalitarianism’ was central. For me the decisive question was the nature of the régimes that emerged from the Leninist communist movement. My whole intellectual journey revolved around that. At that time I did not see a de-Stalinising Communist Party, but rather one that was falling apart. The problem that captured my attention and became the motor of my own personal trajectory was Marxism’s failure to account for the régimes that claimed to be Marxist in inspiration. I very quickly arrived at the idea that the essential question was to elaborate a way of thinking history that would allow an escape from the impasses of Marxism, in particular as regards its evaluation of so-called ‘bourgeois’ democracy. That was the question that separated me from ’68 thought’, which could not be used to that end.

Some on the Left claim that 1960s thought ultimately combined with and justified contemporary capitalist thinking. And on the Right they think that May ’68 is the cause of the breakdown of hierarchy, authority, the family and education – in a word, the cause of the undermining, or even the destruction of France’s grandeur. What has happened to French society, such as to bring about such criticism of ’68 thought?

Marcel Gauchet: May ’68 was a political failure, and lacked any immediate practical consequences. We should remember that the Left was crushed at the 1969 elections, following the departure of General de Gaulle. However this political failure was accompanied by a tremendous cultural and societal triumph: the spirit of ’68 penetrated into French society and transformed it. The multiplier event was the 1974 crisis, following the autumn 1973 oil crash. Globalisation began: and this meant the world changing, capitalism changing, society changing, now being characterised by individualisation. Revolutionary politics was thrown off course, but conversely the liberal-libertarian sensibility became the dominant one. This was not just a French evolution, but a general movement affecting all Western societies. That is what a right-wing critique like that by Eric Zemmour is unable to see. He acts as if everything is the result of 1968, when in fact the transformation is a global one. Ultimately May ’68 was only the French way of entering into this mutation, which simultaneously turned the economy, social relations and institutions – starting with the family – upside down.

There is currently an interesting and rather telling infatuation with Michel Foucault’s famous 1979 course on biopolitics. It allows us to get a picture of how a particularly agile mind dealt with these transformations. Even Foucault’s most zealous disciples have to recognise – not without embarrassment – that he felt a certain affinity with the neoliberal turn that was then taking place. Indeed his course took place at exactly the same time as Margaret Thatcher was elected in Great Britain, which was itself shortly followed by Ronald Reagan’s victory in the United States. This fact in itself does not trouble me. What I would reproach both Foucault and his peers for is their failure to grasp the significance of what was taking place, in both its positive and negative aspects. That was indeed the great handicap of the intellectual equipment provided by ’68 thought: it did not allow us to address this new reality. 

Elisabeth Roudinesco: What Foucault, Derrida and all this so-called ’68 thought offered was the idea that it was possible to criticise the Communist system by way of theories of subjectivity. For my part, conversely, I would say that it did allow me to think through the advent of globalisation, in seeking a subjectivity that was not the accomplice of state domination. And then I was a globalist – I couldn’t have been otherwise, because I was an internationalist. Communism offered the idea that the revolution would bring globality: the end of borders, of nation-states… I was profoundly European, which is why I was very much seduced by the idea of Eurocommunism. The failure was obvious. Up till Mikhail Gorbachev, I truly hoped that the Communist Parties would transform into social-democratic ones, with very lively theoretical debates.

But hasn’t this ’68 thought in turn become a new academic convention? 

Elisabeth Roudinesco:
The stronger a thought is, the more it produces dogmas, and the more we need to criticise these dogmas. Derrida said that the best way to remain faithful to a heritage is to be unfaithful to it. I feel like a permanent infidel; I cannot accept being given dogmas, particularly the dogmas of Lacanism. When a thought is so strong, it produces epigones, ‘experts’ and imitators, but that does not trouble me: it is necessary to criticise these people on the basis of this heritage, even while being unfaithful to it. 

Let’s take two authors whose afterlife in politics and the academy is evident, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Is their thought still fertile, or does it lead us into an impasse?

Marcel Gauchet
: It is easy to understand the success of the concepts of the ‘rhizome’, ‘desiring machines’, ‘networks’, ‘micropower’ or ‘biopower’. These notions and the thought underlying them do perfectly fit the movement of our societies. But do they allow us to understand and analyse this movement? I don’t think so. Foucault’s thought offers an effective theoretical translation of the libertarian sensibility that is the prevailing wind in our individualist societies. But do micro-power and governmentality account for what is taking place in our societies? I think not.

Bourdieu’s sociology deserves consideration and is solidly articulated, but it does not have much grip on how our world functions in practice. Take education, for example: his philosophy of reproduction proposes a vision of domination and how it is incorporated in habitus, but sidesteps the question of the role the education system plays in our societies and the acute problems that this institution is facing in the current context. Is the role of the education system reducible to reproduction alone? We might doubt that. This is not an academic debate: this critique caused terrible damage.

The Inheritors presented a certain type of literary culture as the instrument of a class connivance. For once, the critique got a hearing, and mathematics was raised to the position of a legitimate instrument of classifying minds. Because mathematics appeals to the simple logic of reasoning, it is supposed to be socially neutral and not to imply any cultural class connivance. Experience shows us exactly the opposite. Mathematics is an even more merciless instrument of social selection than humanist culture is. The problems that the school system is dealing with today are essentially the fruit of the individualisation of society – of families and of students – and Bourdieu’s theory leaves us disarmed in the face of this phenomenon. So here we have an inoperative analytical framework. It has its virtues, but when it becomes a kind of dogma it is disastrous, and if we are to deal with the problem we have to start again on different bases.

Elisabeth Roudinesco: I really liked the permanent contradiction in Pierre Bourdieu between what he said and what he was. Even so, let’s recognise that he rediscovered ‘the world’s misery’, at a time when no one was trying to understand the people any more, at the moment of an intellectual counter-revolution. But he did not think societal questions in terms of individualities or subjectivity – that didn’t interest him, whereas it was very much Foucault and Derrida’s preoccupation. My generation’s attention was captured by questions of individual emancipation, which is certainly a reason why the question of homosexuality was of capital importance. It allowed us to think about the family and how it has evolved. Individualist demands seemed to me to be the result of the theory of subjectivity, such as Sigmund Freud had proposed it. Politics took the form of individual emancipation. It is clear that feminism collapsed because it became too dogmatic, like most ideals of emancipation do. But minorities’ rights were – and remain – a struggle. 

Are we seeing a counter-May ’68 movement in France today, as embodied by the Manif pour tous[protests against equal marriage]?

Elisabeth Roudinesco: We are seeing a movement driving things radically to the Right. With the rise of populism the people is today heading more toward Marine le Pen than toward the far Left. As for the Manif pour tous demonstrations, they bear no resemblance to May ’68, they do not even do anything to imitate its aesthetics. There was something extremely festive and aesthetic in the May ’68 demonstrations, there was a great beauty of language; and I see absolutely nothing of that in the Manif pour tous, with all these monarchist types with their ridiculous homophobic and sometimes racist slogans. Never before had I seen young kids in pushchairs waving flags on demonstrations. I ask myself what these children will think when one day they see that they were the object of such manipulation. 

Marcel Gauchet: May ’68 has become an absurd foil for the Right, and this prevents the people who target it from seeing the true bases of the immense transformation that we are all caught up in, and which they participate in despite themselves. The problem for the Left, faced with these developments, is that it has no stable analysis. So it goes along with the movement [of society in general] without understanding it, sometimes being complicit in it and sometimes hostile to it; the reformist wing of the Left tries to alleviate the most destructive effects of these changes, whereas its radical wing takes refuge in incantatory protests. It no longer has a project of social transformation. Today the choice is between impotent indignation and the reconstruction of a framework for reading the history that is currently taking place, such as to allow us to get a grip on the development of our societies again.

Elisabeth Roudinesco:We should be careful to avoid being know-it-all critics; I think that the indignation is mounting, and it will end up leading to something. Of course, it could also result in the worst of outcomes, to fascism or neopopulism, but that should not lead us into inactivity.  Doing history makes you more level-headed, but this little flame that’s been burning in me since May ’68 is still there. And when a movement breaks out, I think that we have to be in the event. We live in an age of capitalism gone mad, whose only horizon is numbers. We have to repoliticise political life and stop talking about the economy all the time, that’s not the only decisive factor. I can’t stand the vocabulary of ‘experts’ that has now established itself everywhere. The big moments could return – though that should not stop us from acting day to day. 

Marcel Gauchet: While I am sensitive to the unpredictability you’re talking about, I think that we can equip ourselves with the means to deal with what happens. For example, I think that if you closely followed the developments in the family and gay liberation after May ’68, you could anticipate a demand for the juridical redefinition of relations whose nature had already completely changed at a private level. We are probably not yet at the end of this shift. What we thought were anthropological invariables were in fact unable to resist this movement. We can imagine a challenge to incest remaining an absolute taboo in our societies. From the moment that you uphold a pure philosophy of individual rights, then mutual recognition as lovers escapes any social regulation. I am not saying that this will happen – I am saying that it is within the logic of the current shift.

I am not indignant about indignation, but I do see its limits and I do not believe that the solutions will emerge spontaneously. We have to equip ourselves with the intellectual means for understanding how our societies are moving. Without these tools, this movement will be something that we have to submit to. And we have at least learned that there is no ‘great day’ that we ought to be waiting for.  

Original published here. 

Elisabeth Roudinesco is a historian and associate professor at the History department at Paris VII-Diderot, and is responsible for a history of psychoanalysis seminar (ENS-GHSS). Her works include Philosophes dans la tourmente  (Fayard, 2005), La Part obscure de nous-mêmes. Une histoire des pervers (Albin Michel, 2007); Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, 2 vols. (1982-86); Jacques Lacan. Esquisse d’une vie, histoire d’un système de pensée (1993); Lacan: In Spite of Everything (Verso, 2014) and Sigmund Freud en son temps et dans le nôtre (Seuil, 2014)

Marcel Gauchet is a historian and philosopher, and is director of studies at the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), as well as being lead editor of Le Débat journal (Gallimard), which he founded in 1980 together with Pierre Nora. His works include La Condition historique (Stock, 2003); Que faire? Dialogue sur le communisme, le capitalisme et l’avenir de la démocratie, together with Alain Badiou (Philo, 2014); L’Avènement de la démocratie, Vol. 1, La Révolution moderne, Vol. 2, La Crise du libéralisme (Gallimard, 2007), and Vol. 3, A l’épreuve des totalitarismes, 1914-1974 (Gallimard, 2010).