The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968

The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968

The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968

The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968


The events of 1968 have been seen as a decisive turning point in the Western world of even mythical significance. The author takes a critical look at "May 1968" and questions whether the events were in fact as "revolutionary" as French and foreign commentators have indicated. His conclusions are rather more ambivalent: culturally, he argues, the student movement changed little that had not already been challenged and altered in the late fifties and early sixties. The workers' strikes led to fewer working hours and higher wages, but these reforms reflected the secular demands of the French labor movement. "May 1968" was remarkable not because of the actual transformations it wrought but rather by virtue of the revolutionary power that much of the media and most scholars have attributed to it and which turned it into a symbol of a youthful, renewed, and freer society in France and beyond.

Michael Seidman received his Ph. D. from the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Workers against Work: Labor in Barcelona and Paris during the Popular Fronts, (1991) (Japanese translation, 1998) and of Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War, (2002) (Spanish translation, 2003). His articles have appeared in British, American, Spanish, French, German, and Chinese journals. He has taught at Rutgers University and currently teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington


In 1968 worldwide revolutionary agitation was greater than at any time since the end of World War I. From Paris to Peking, governments were forced to deal with varieties of unrest. The global revolts of 1968 seemed to constitute an international revolutionary wave comparable to the Atlantic Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century or to the continental European revolutions of 1848. As in 1789 and 1848, Paris was once again a center of revolt. Although this time Paris did not initiate the movement (German, Italian, and American upheavals preceded it), the French capital became the first major theater in which student and worker unrest coincided. Revolutionaries and radical reformers throughout the world believed that combined student and worker protests in France were nearly successful in overthrowing the government and creating a new society. Some argued that Paris had "surpassed" the other rebellions. During and after the rebellions, the rebels were optimistic: "It is only a beginning," they chanted.

This vision of the French May (a word that often serves as shorthand for the "events" of May-June 1968) remains dominant. The events are still viewed as a rupture with the past and the beginning not of proletarian revolution (as many radicals thought at the time), but rather of a cultural rebellion that led to a more emancipated society. Almost all agree that the crisis of the spring of 1968 changed France profoundly. Given its perceived importance, it was not surprising that in the immediate aftermath of May and in subsequent years the events were, according to police, "overexploited by publishers" of books and even music. The publishing explosion confirmed the judgment of Georges Pompidou, then prime minister, who remarked in the midst of the crisis: "The only historical precedent "of the May events" is the fifteenth century when the structures of the Middle Ages were collapsing and when students were revolting at

Notes for this section begin on page 13.

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