May ’68, when young people managed to shake up history

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May ’68, when young people managed to shake up history

Written by Jaume Carbonell

In May 1968, young people staged a revolt in Paris. They demanded a profound change in society. Two decades after the end of the Second World War, the new generation demanded more freedom, more rights and a better education system. Some of their demands changed our lives

The young people who demonstrated in Paris in May 1968, 55 years ago, wanted to change the world. But you cannot change the world without changing people’s daily lives. The young people rejected the old economic and social structures. But they were aware that first they needed a revolution of consciences that would make a civilisation with new values possible. And which would allow a life less dependent on monotonous work. A more dignified and creative life.

May ’68 signifies the emergence of youth as a new historical subject.  It certifies the death of the old dogmas and explores other ways of thinking about reality and doing politics. It replaces demands of a material and economic nature with other radically different qualitative demands: because it is not a question of improving the existing order but of building a new one.

That is why the student movement of the 1960s denounced both the capitalist market system (“oppressive, consumerist and competitive”) and state socialism (“with its authoritarian, bureaucratic and repressive hierarchical mechanisms”). Above all, young people were looking for new spaces and narratives of individual and collective liberation.

May ’68 is, above all, Paris. But there are other simultaneous mayos with a powerful precedent in the university classrooms of Berkeley (California, USA), which, among other struggles, led the opposition to the Vietnam War. The protest in Prague (Czechoslovakia), which seeks a third way of socialism in freedom to break away from the Soviet Union and which was repressed with tanks. The massacre in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City over protests against the corruption of the PRI, the government party. Berlin and other European and American cities.

The historical assessment

Fifty years later, assessments of the uprising vary widely. Some analysts consider the protests to have been a merely hedonistic, individualistic outburst, with hardly any historical significance. Some would like to forget it because they still find it unexplained and uncomfortable.  Others continue to idealise it uncritically, and there are those who consider that in political terms it was a failure, but not in terms of civilisation.

The truth is that never before in a single year had so many ideas and proposals intersected. Young people proclaimed that it was time to “look for the beach under the cobblestones”. It was not in vain. To a greater or lesser extent, 1968 saw the emergence of feminism, pacifism, environmentalism, anti-imperialism, respect for minorities, communitarianism, the struggle for civil rights, the sexual revolution and other changes in everyday life that put a new stamp on previous revolutionary processes.

The utopia of asking for the impossible

The walls became the fundamental instrument of communication used by the students. It was the apotheosis of graffiti. Young people wrote rules, reflections, wishes, proposals and quotations from thinkers and poets. In the background, the criticism of the ‘capitalist’ university always beats in the background. The demonstrators denounce that “the university is dedicated to train future executives for the exploitation of the working class and to enter the big military and political business”.

“Let’s be realistic, let’s ask for the impossible”. This is one of the great slogans of May ’68. It reflects the utopian character of the movement. The occupied faculties and the streets are spaces for sharing dreams and sketching out utopias of all kinds. To do this, young people give free rein to their creativity and imagination. They are committed to chance and spontaneity, far from any dogma or pre-established plan. They live intensely in the present moment with the aim of letting go of attachments and prejudices. They maintain a constant attitude of rejection, but never of resignation, in the face of the established social order. From reaction, young people move on to creation: artistic and political, personal and collective. Because desires are taken as realities.

“It is strictly forbidden to prohibit”. This is another of the great messages of May ’68. It expresses the desire to exercise maximum freedom: in the use of the word; in being able to think for oneself without imposition or conditioning of any kind; in what one wants to study and learn; in the internal workings of institutions: whether in faculties or in residences where they demand an end to the ban on boys being allowed to enter girls’ rooms.

Young people radically question the norms and customs that prohibit free love, because it is understood that there is no social revolution without a sexual revolution. As A. Breton, one of the icons of the French May, the creative revolt is illuminated by three paths: poetry, freedom and love. “We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is compensated by the guarantee of not dying of boredom”.

Criticism of the university

“In exams, answer with questions”. This phrase sums up the attitude of criticism of an education system that students consider rigid and outdated. The students contest the exams “as a servile instrument of social and hierarchical promotion, which excludes the children of the working class”.  They called for the abolition of memorised tests and their replacement by continuous assessment.

The young people are bringing back the postulates of the philosopher Socrates with his questions that force them to think in order to better understand the world and the human condition. And Hamlet (Shakespeare’s character) also returns with his doubts that challenge the right answers and absolute truths. Technocratic rationality is turned upside down. It could not be otherwise because the philosophy and the spirit of ’68 abominate all kinds of classification and control.

Young people want to participate. And not just any old way, but on the basis of direct democracy, student power and self-management. The young people take the Paris Commune, the workers’ councils, the soviets in the early stages of the Soviet revolution and the proletarian revolution of 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, through the agricultural and industrial collectivisations, as illustrative historical milestones.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the most lucid and significant student leaders, was very clear: “We want self-management of the university, not co-management shared with the professors and the various authorities. No, we want pure and simple self-management. The university belongs to those who make it serve, and those who use it are the students, is that clear, so it is we who must govern it in the future”.

The shadow of May ’68, as vague as it was long, also left its mark on Spain at different times. In the university conflicts with some minority attempts to find alternative classes and seminars; in teaching training processes such as the Summer School of ’69, with provocative debates and a substantial reduction in the number of courses to dedicate them to the free exchange of ideas; in the long and intense libertarian and countercultural festivals of words and art during the Transition; or in the movement of the indignados of 15-M with the squares turned into permanent forums of debate: one of the richest experiences of democratic participation and political self-management.SH

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May ’68, when young people managed to shake up history

Written by Jaume Carbonell

May ’68, when young people managed to shake history Half a century ago, in May 1968, young people staged a revolt in Paris. They demanded more freedom, more rights and a better education system. Some of their achievements changed our lives Jaume Carbonell The young people who demonstrated in Paris in May 1968 wanted to change the world. They rejected the established social order and wanted to build a new social order. They demanded more freedom, more rights and a better education system. May ’68 is, above all, Paris. But there are other simultaneous revolts in many other cities: Prague, Mexico DF., Berlin and other European and American cities The historical assessment From the revolt of May 68 many social movements gained strength. Feminism, pacifism, environmentalism, anti-imperialism, respect for minorities, communitarianism, the struggle for civil rights, the sexual revolution and other changes in everyday life emerged.

The utopia of asking for the impossible

On the walls students make graffiti where they write rules, reflections, wishes, proposals and quotes from thinkers and poets. “Let’s be realistic, let’s ask for the impossible”. This is one of the great slogans of May ’68. The occupied faculties and the streets are spaces to share dreams and sketch utopias of all kinds. Because desires are taken as realities. “It is strictly forbidden to prohibit”. This is another of the great messages of May ’68. It expresses the desire to exercise maximum freedom. Freedom in the use of the word. Freedom in being able to think for oneself without imposition or conditioning of any kind. Freedom in what one wants to study and learn. Freedom in the internal functioning of the institutions, both faculties and residences. Criticism of the university “In exams, answer with questions”. This phrase sums up the attitude of criticism of an educational system that students consider rigid and outdated. The philosophy and spirit of ’68 reject any kind of classification and control. Young people want to participate on the basis of direct democracy, student power and self-management. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the student leaders, was very clear: “We want self-management of the University. The University belongs to those who make it serve, and those who use it are the students. Therefore, we are the ones who must govern it in the future”. In Spain, May ’68 also had an influence at different times. In the Summer School of ’69. In the festivities of the word and art during the Transition. Or in the movement of the indignados of 15-M with the squares turned into permanent debate forums: one of the richest experiences of democratic participation and political self-management.

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