May ’68 and the Power of Art

Almost half a century ago in the city of Paris, occured one of the most incredible moments in modern history. It was the moment where class society crumbled, and where the ideological foundations of capitalist rule collapsed. Student unrest reached a climax in the early months of ‘68, this the result of a culmination of ‘opposition to the Vietnam war; dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic and authoritarian structures of the university; critique of the alienated and isolated character of student life; a suspicion of all organisation, all hierarchy, of the traditional Left; … and a confused equation of social and of sexual repression… which led to the critique of a whole mode of social organisation [and in turn urged its followers] towards the affirmation of spontaneous action and self-expression’ (Sylvia Harvey). Empowered by the credo of Guy Debord and the Situationist International – a group of prominent avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists – who were driven by a unified want for a rigorous critique of advanced capitalist hegemony, the students began their revolution against Gaullist oppression.

(above: “be young and shut up”)

Debord extended Marx’s theory of alienation (grossly oversimplified as the deterioration of the essence of humanity as a result of mechanised functioning brought about by social class) and elaborated that the debilitating circulation of such forced labour and consumption on the working class gave rise to what he called ‘the society of the spectacle’. Debord defines the spectacle as ‘the concrete inversion of life… the autonomous movement of the non-living… the present model of socially dominant life… [it] is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image’ (Debord, Society of the Spectacle). There are very few means of bypassing the spectacle, so deeply is it embedded within the societal unconscious. However, The SI isolated art as a powerful means of spectatorial liberation, taking cue from the surrealist empowerment of the psyche in an increasingly repressed modernity. But the art they endorsed was a crucially paradoxical one: as high art and academic art is one which they believed to be dead and buried (‘DO NOT CONSUME ITS CORPSE!’). Instead the art they championed was one of spontaneity, achieved through the creation of situations: events driven by authentic desires, free of the invisible omnipresent influence of capitalist subversion.


As student demonstrations mounted at the Sorbonne (University of Paris), on May 3 the French riot police (CRS) turned hostile. They encircled the Sorbonne and tried to arrest students for having the courage to say enough is enough. The CRS fired tear gas into the crowds and beat students, and within minutes the crowds grew as students across the university ran to aid their fellows and tried to keep them from the brutality of the police. The tussle went on for hours, and after the first night, 72 riot police were injured, as well as hundreds of students – many of whom were fearful to go to the hospital – and over 600 students were arrested. The university quickly transformed into a makeshift concentration camp, with hundreds of riot police patrolling its spaces, blocking its entrances, and stopping any small groups at all from forming. Soon the student’s union called for a nationwide strike, and the lecturer’s union was also quickly involved, dismayed at the government’s forceful approach towards university affairs.

(above: “CRS = SS”)

Over the next week Students in the tens of thousands gathered in Paris to demand the release of their fellow students and an end to such prolonged repression. But violence escalated, and the endless reports of police brutality resulted in considerable public sympathy for the students. The strength of the student movement boomed, the students stood beside teachers, lecturers and newly joined masses of young workers, and DeGaulle’s government became more and more detached: they were no longer a force of rule, but an enemy using brute force against its people. The government attempted to channel the view that the protests were down to just a small few unhappy troublemakers, shaken but smugly confident that their control over the media would sway the majority. Soon they found a target, Daniel Cohn Bendit, a flamboyant and popular Nanterre student who quickly became the face of the events, and someone who the government could accuse. The government-led media began their onslaught, branding Cohn-Bendit a ‘German Jew’ which bolstered the students and their views further – the chants soon became ‘we are all German Jews!’.

(above: Daniel Cohn Bendit, “We are all undesirables”)

This was an incredibly powerful turning point in the events of May ‘68, as the media now became seen for what it was – a one-sided platform for mass manipulation: it had demonstrated outright one of the principle critiques that May ‘68 stood for. With this quick expulsion of the mass media, the Parisian people needed a truthful, visual form of expression to replace the absence of the media, and so in came the art of the people – the situation had arrived, and images started to plaster the walls of the city streets, and repressions at last found a means of materialisation. The corruption of the media became the primary visual focus at first, this in response to their deplorable, fascistic presentation of Cohn-Bendit. The media had caused an upsurgence of Nazi orientated images which became a very powerful pathological mover, uprooting the repressed events of World War 2, and solidifying an iconic image representative of the ideological power of DeGaulle and his government over the people. The Nazi allusions in no way foregrounded race, and unlike the race-propelled imagery used in Hitler’s Germany, the protesters made it very clear that race, ethnicity, gender or religion is irrelevant, that this is a class affair. And so these particular images become even more paramount, in that they rather served to expose a return to the peak of ideological control in that Hitler’s Germany exemplifies, in its most extreme and catastrophic form, the power of media and visual cultures as the driving force of ideology and repression.

(above: “civil action: fascist vermin”)

Any hopes by DeGaulle that the students would eventually be deterred were destroyed on the Night of the Barricades (May 10) when an all out assault by the police ensued and the students attempted to resist. At around 2.15a.m. the police began their charge – blitzing the streets with tear gas and baton charging the groups of students as they choked in the mist. The few students who came prepared donned motorcycle helmets, used dustbin lids as shields, and tried to fight back by hurling paving stones, molotov cocktails and a few fought back with wooden sticks and makeshift clubs. After four intense hours of bloody violence, and hundreds wounded, some severely (though miraculously none were killed), the battle subsided, and the next day the footage hit the TV screens of millions. The devastation left was catastrophic: charred husks of cars like upturned beetles littered the streets; the pavements like Tetris grids, torn up and misaligned; thousands of teargas canisters and a Banksy-blitz of frantic images covering every walled surface. The government had gone too far, enough was enough. As Sylvia Harvey notes ‘the extensive and extremely violent rout of the students on the night of the barricades… secured both a moral victory and a tactical advantage. It established beyond doubt the seriousness of their opposition to de Gaulle’s government… [and brought about the] weighty support of the CTG [one of France’s biggest labour trade unions], which could no longer ignore the extent and severity of Gaullist repression’. And so, in came the working-class.

(above: “the struggle continues”)

Within less than 24 hours almost every trade union in the country was involved, calling for a massive strike and national demonstrations. Just a few days later (May 13th) close to a million demonstrators marched through Paris and from then on the strikes expanded outside of unions, migrating to major factories, and soon enough came the factory occupations. Titans of car manufacture including renault and peugeot were rendered immobile. The car, one of the immovable and sacrosanct icons of consumer culture was a prime target, and quickly ascended as one of the central symbolic enforcers of the ideological collapse. By May 24 around 10 million workers were on strike across the country. What began with a few students questioning the ailed organisation and structure of their education had evolved into a country wide questioning of the very building blocks of their lives and what they were worth in class society: De Gaulle’s government ‘one of the most powerful and stable governments of Europe was on the verge of collapse’ (Sylvia Harvey). After what many of the students and workers described as 2 weeks of sheer jubilance, of freedom as never before, DeGaulle’s government threatened a country wide state of emergency. Soon enough, all was back as before, the ideological cataracts of the spectacle floated back into place…


NB: this was originally given at the ‘class and the past’ conference at Lancaster University in 2k17 organised by the legend that is Sophie Raine


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