PRINT May 2008


Forty years ago this month, students and workers, often numbering in the thousands, took to the streets around the world, from Latin America to the Eastern bloc, in the spirit of ushering into life real alternatives to the day’s existent political and cultural orders. The sheer magnitude of these events remains striking and, indeed, is often the stuff of nostalgia—and yet their true significance is perhaps still unclear when it comes to the shapes of aesthetic, social, and political narratives today. Seeking to take stock of our own moment, Artforum invited a number of art historians, artists, and philosophers to investigate this earlier time in historical counterpoint. To begin, critical theorist and Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer offers a chronology of the events of May ’68 in France, before speaking with Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri about that seminal moment of rupture.

SOMETHING HAPPENED IN THE “JOLI MAI” OF 1968—just what precisely remains subject to debate. Yet no one doubts that it was a major turning point for France and one of the most seminal political events of the twentieth century. May ’68 happened on its own in Paris, but it didn’t do it alone. It happened in New York and in Berkeley, California; in Mexico City and in Berlin; in Rome and in Rio de Janeiro; in Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague. It was the first global revolution before anyone knew what “global” was. The synchronicity was astonishing, especially given the technology at hand: no cell phones, no Internet, no 24/7 cable news—not even fax machines. And it couldn’t have helped that the planet was split into two antagonistic blocs whose fault lines zigzagged across the world map. And yet May ’68 crossed every border, regardless of what it stood for. Those who opposed the “real socialism” of the Soviet Union pressed for freedom and democracy, thus embracing capitalism and American pop culture; those who opposed capitalism rejected narrow bourgeois moral values, authoritarianism, and labor exploitation and embraced a “possible socialism” that soon proved impossible to sustain. Looking back at the revolutionary fever that jumped from flash point to flash point around the globe, sending millions of people to the streets, we can now better grasp its cause. This was the first generation to emerge from the rubble of World War II and, as students, they awoke to a world order that had been created for them and that they felt morally compelled to oppose.

The student uprisings of ’68 signaled the rise of a distinct sensibility that transcended differences in language, nationality, and ideology. The German philosopher Herbert Marcuse caught the imagination of the New Left in the mid-’60s, denouncing not only the totalitarian aspects of bureaucratic Communism but also the “repressive tolerance” practiced by the majority in ostensibly democratic countries. Advanced industrial societies having successfully managed to integrate the working class, Marcuse argued, only radical minorities could be counted on at this point to practice the “great refusal.” It was in May 1968 that youth worldwide first emerged as a “class.”

IT STARTED SMALL, but the rebellion had been brewing for months on the campus of the University of Paris, Nanterre, an academic ghetto in a dreary Parisian suburb. Afflicted by the same malaise diagnosed in Strasbourg by the Situationist International in its 1966 pamphlet “On the Poverty of Student Life” and incited to action by SI poet-provocateur Raoul Vaneigem’s influential Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), the disgruntled students of Nanterre committed to disrupt the empty “consumption of knowledge” and transform Nanterre into a “critical university.” The protest quickly turned against the institution itself, and the enragés used every means possible to disrupt it, cultivating provocation, derision, class disruptions, and the occupation of administrative buildings to publicize their opposition to sexual segregation and “American imperialism.” (The Cuban revolution, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Vietnam War loomed large in the background.) Revolutionary groups, Trotskyite and Maoist, struggled to take over the French student movement, which had led the fight against the Algerian War. A large group of enragés headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit (later dubbed Dany le Rouge by the press) tried to surmount the students’ division through a series of “exemplary actions” meant to create a momentum of their own.1

On March 20, militant students were arrested in Paris during an “anti-imperialist” action against American Express, and more than a hundred students responded by briefly occupying an administrative building in Nanterre. This gave birth to the “Movement of March 22,” which quickly grew a thousand students strong. On May 1, the administration decided to discipline eight students, including Cohn-Bendit, provoking even more agitation on campus. In response, the dean suspended all classes the next day; in turn, various student organizations called a general meeting at the Sorbonne for May 3.

No one anticipated that this was the start of a process that would eventually engulf the entire nation. But the Sorbonne’s rector, fearing that the “anti-imperialist” meeting set to take place at the university would provoke violent confrontation with extreme-Right groups, overreacted, calling in the police to shut down the campus; three hundred students were arrested. Nobel Prize winner Alfred Kastler and prominent intellectuals protested publicly, and Parisians overwhelmingly took the students’ side, with French colors flying. People thought “it was 1848 all over again.” During the night of May 10, a series of barricades went up around the Latin Quarter. “We were happy,” Cohn-Bendit later wrote, “because we were conscious of our strength, and it was this feeling of unity that created the festive atmosphere.”2 The next day, the police attacked the barricades and hundreds of students were wounded.

On May 13, hundreds of thousands—more ecstatic accounts cite a figure of one million people—mobilized by unions and leftist parties, assembled at the Place de la République and marched through Paris. Jubilant crowds occupied the Sorbonne, while others excitedly debated the situation in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had likewise been taken over; the police withdrew from the Latin Quarter. Factories across the country went on strike. The students had been playing a poker game, upping the ante irrespective of what the next move would be, and they won.

It was “the last poetic revolution of the nineteenth century,” Maurice Grimaud, the police commissioner at the time, remarked in his memoirs.3 Oratory became a new art; poetic aphorisms covered the walls. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People was in every mind’s eye, and it took no time for even the meekest to become hard-core revolutionaries. Barricades marked the sacred grounds where history, once again, was invited to unfold. But the fringes were becoming reckless, and people worried that things might go too far. Until then, the powerful French Communist Party (PCF) had stayed on the sidelines, wary of “the children of the bourgeoisie.” It finally moved into the fray, with its labor union (CGT) in tow. Then another game started, this one played much closer to the chest. The PCF mobilized its “masses,” but on the party’s own account. Workers’ unions now called for a general strike but secretly kept negotiating wage increases with the help of the government. The second “night of barricades” took place on May 24–25, and the brutal response of the police recalled the worst hours of the protest movement against the Algerian War. On May 29, as the PCF and CGT were staging a huge demonstration across France, positioning themselves for a dominant role in a transition government, came the news that President de Gaulle had disappeared. France was paralyzed—even the state-run television network had gone on strike.

What happened next is difficult to account for. The movement started unraveling, having nowhere to go. On May 30, the balance began to tip. Addressing the nation over the radio from a French air force base in Germany, where he had taken refuge, President de Gaulle sternly ordered everyone to resume work, dissolved the National Assembly, and called for new elections. That evening, the Gaullists staged a huge counterdemonstration on the Champs-Élysées. Soon after, the unions urged their rank and file to return to their workstations. Many felt betrayed; some cried openly. On June 16, police stormed the Sorbonne. On June 23, de Gaulle won the election by a landslide.

IF EVENTS IN FRANCE OUTSTRIPPED the revolutionary potential of her European neighbors in the ’60s, it was, interestingly, Italian political thinkers of the time who had their fingers most firmly on the social pulse. They realized very early on that profound transformations were under way. Everything was breaking down and shifting around, as in a kaleidoscope. The Italians tinkered with old Marxist categories and wondered about “class recomposition.” In the early ’60s, a small group of these heretic Marxist intellectuals, including the philosopher Antonio Negri, decided to see for themselves what workers’ lives were like on the assembly line, instead of speaking theoretically in their names. They published the fruits of that research in their journal Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks), from 1961 until 1965, analyzing the capitalist organization of labor and reflecting on the ongoing class struggle in the factory. Unlike the French students who rushed to support striking workers in the heat of the moment, the Operaisti (Workerists) witnessed the workers’ rebellion in Italy firsthand. They realized that capital wouldn’t be able to contain it for long unless conditions, or capital itself, drastically changed. The events in Paris in 1968, Negri recalls in the interview that follows, didn’t take the Operaisti unawares, and they sought to further their impact by creating a large movement, called Autonomia, which included students, young workers, and the unemployed. It grew for another decade and was then abruptly cut short in 1977, just as it was turning into a major force in the country. Resurrecting prewar Fascist laws for the purpose, the Italian government arrested, tried, and jailed the Autonomist leaders for allegedly masterminding the Red Brigade terrorists. Negri was sentenced to thirty-four years in prison, of which he ultimately served about a third.

MAY ’68 IN FRANCE ACHIEVED in a short time—four weeks, to be exact—what the Italian movement took ten years to build, so it wasn’t a small feat by any means. Starting from scratch, the French students managed to rouse an entire nation. They stole France, took it for a joyride, and then, just as suddenly, dropped it in a back alley with no more than a few scratches. It was the first revolution—if it was one—that didn’t produce any martyrs to celebrate. The revolt fed on its own momentum, without a definite goal in mind or even a common ideology, and without any organization to back it up. And yet it managed to achieve what any revolution worth its salt is meant to—it brought the population to its feet and ultimately brought down the regime (within a year de Gaulle would lose a referendum tantamount to a vote of confidence and resign)—while still avoiding the typical fate of rebellions: brutal and prolonged repression. May ’68 wasn’t made to last, and it outlasted them all.

France never recovered from the events of that spring. The country resisted any attempt to assimilate what had suddenly emerged, but May ’68 left a lasting trace: From its ashes arose the most vital political theories to emerge in the West over the past half century, as if the political creativity of the French May, thwarted in every other way, found in philosophy its most potent outlet. While in exile in Paris from 1983 to 1997, Negri worked closely with Félix Guattari, likewise a longtime activist and thinker, and the impact of “French theory”—especially the work of Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari—can be felt strongly in Negri’s writing, from Empire (2000),4 written in collaboration with Michael Hardt and extraordinarily well received in the United States, all the way to The Porcelain Workshop, Negri’s forthcoming essay on the grammar of politics.5

As the fortieth anniversary of May ’68 approached, I spoke with Negri—now perhaps the foremost political philosopher of our time—about the events of that momentous spring and the lessons they still hold for us.

Sylvère Lotringer, the founder and general editor of Semiotext(e), is a professor of French at Columbia University in New York.


1. Jean-Pierre Le Goff, Mai 68: L’Héritage impossible (Paris: La Découverte, 1998), 43–57.

2. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Le Grand Bazar (Paris: Belfond, 1975), 67.

3. Maurice Grimaud, En Mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît [In May, Do as You Please] (Paris: Stock, 1977).

4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), but also Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).

5. Antonio Negri, The Porcelain Workshop: For a New Grammar of Politics, trans. Noura Wedell (New York: Semiotext[e] / MIT Press, 2008).