It has been fifty years since the events of May and June 1968 in France. During this half century, dominated by the “end of communism,” “neoliberalism,” and “globalization,” “May ’68” has faded into a folkloric reference, remembered largely for the barricades in the Latin Quarter and the Situationist slogans that enlivened the walls of Paris. The “events” obviously were not a revolution, even a defeated one—or even close to one. But they are worth remembering and reconsidering. They marked in a grand and inspiring way the end of the social order established after the Second World War (it was not by accident that they were echoed by other events in Prague the same year). They revealed the obsolescence of the old social-control structures of political parties and trade unions, in the historical period that began with the end of the post-war economic miracle. They provided an early taste of the coming decline of the university as an ideological bulwark, and of the social consequences of the disappearance of meaningful work for young people. They also revealed the power latent in the workplace, the rapidity with which it could mobilize itself and create linkages even on a national scale. They revealed at the same time the energy with which the forces of the reigning order—in France, ranging from the Gaullist right to the Communist left—were ready to fight to preserve that order. In these ways this flash of light from the past illuminates our future.
I am grateful to guest editor Charles Reeve for helping us appreciate that illumination by assembling a selection of historical documents, a couple of memoirs by activists of the time, and a fascinating conversation about the impact of the events in Paris on two provincial teenage girls—an unconventional demonstration, if one were needed, of the historical importance of May ’68.
Translations from the French are by Janet Koenig