the libertarian spring



The French May of 68 and its repercussions in the revolts of the XNUMXst century

“in that May / the choice between guitar and violence was decided / the cobblestones flew / demanding a critical university / and peace without sandals / fleeing the palace of negotiations / he martyred his feet / in the valley of cut pipes / that May

(Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in Loving you learn by loving)

the spring of may

It's been fifty-two years since the libertarian utopia of French May 1968 shook the world. Surprisingly and with a lot of creativity, he revived the revolutionary spirit of humanism to the extent that its craftsmen felt they were part of all humanity. “When a French student declares that he is not a student, nor a Frenchman, but a revolutionary, we witness, as if it were a dream, the collapse of all borders” Therefore, nothing that is human was foreign to them” (MATOS, 1982, p.25).

They were skeptical, because they were suspicious of ideologies as a disguise for unbearable realities. They were men of faith because they believed in what potentially existed, even though it was not yet born. They could say “no” and be disobedient because they could say “yes” and obey principles that were genuinely their own. "Be realistic, demand the impossible”; “it is forbidden to forbid'; “the walls have ears, your ears have walls” ; “the boss needs you, you don't need him”; “the merchandise is the opium of the people” and “the barricades close the streets, but open the paths”.

Those boutades translate the irredentist spirit of those who once believed it was possible to knock down, overnight, the iron walls of capitalism, with its authoritarian superstructure, and start the path towards a new society, founded on the absence of any egotism. “Our path”, they said, “will be a long march of fraternity”. O ethos of the May movement consisted of questioning the “repressive tolerance” of modern societies, the uncritical integration of the proletariat into capitalist societies, the “great refusal” of youth and their new ethical, aesthetic and political sensibility.

The student revolt was simultaneously political, moral and instinctual, stripped of a traditional class base; was therefore heterodox. It turned against the productivist society and the simulacra of values ​​that it engenders and, consequently, against the alienation of work (MATOS: 1982, p. 28).

A new left was born in May 1968, revealing a strong rejection of traditional politics. It stood up against liberal-democratic society and also failed to endorse the institutions and political system that legitimized it. The Spring of May 1968 unveiled its contradictions and antinomies, by questioning “a society seen as organic and without cracks, teaching that a revolution is not born only from an internal conflict between oppressors and oppressed” (MATOS: 1982, p. 98).

The "robbers from heaven" intended to be architects of a revolution, not only social and political, but also erotic, where emotion counts more than truths "toutes faites”: “the more I make love, the more I want to make the revolution. The more revolution I do, the more I want to make love”.

One of the inspirers of the May revolt, William Reich, pointed to the existing “sexual misery”, advocating, to combat it, “orgasmotherapy” (MATOS:1982,p. 66). “Vivre sans temps morts, jouir sans obstacles”, was what pamphlets released at the time recommended. Controversy is endless as to the scope of this outburst of dissatisfaction with the establishment, that it was not “the second French revolution”, as stated in May 1988 by the defunct Brazilian magazine Headline it was a revolt that experienced insurrectionary moments, almost overthrowing the government of General De Gaulle.

Indeed, the French Revolution of 1789 destroyed the economic, social and political structures of feudalism and put new ones in their place, anchored in the capitalist mode of production. However, even when they are not profound, revolutionary processes generate important ruptures and can permanently modify relevant social and political aspects, as was the case of the American anti-colonialist revolution.

The 1968 uprising did not produce a revolution stricto sensu, as it did not bequeath structural changes, nor overnight, nor even “procedural”, with progressive transformations capable of undermining the foundations of capitalism.

The contesting students of French universities, however, if they did not have the project of a “new society”, they knew what they did not want, having succeeded in sending to the garbage can, in France and elsewhere, the hegemony of behaviors typical of a repressive, sexist and prejudiced society. Thus, the ethos libertarian did tabula rasa of the prohibitions and interdicts concerning the relationship between girls and boys, notably in university residences and educational institutions in France.

May 1968 also contributed decisively to democratize university management, until then practically restricted to the faculty. As a result of these changes, the entire vertical relationship, excessively formalistic, viscerally authoritarian, prevalent in French universities, gave way to a more open, critical and propositional coexistence.

But the Libertarian Spring went further. It exposed the pernicious division between science and ideology, secreted in the scientific environment itself. For science and technology to be liberating, their protagonists asserted, it is necessary to change their orientation and their objectives of destroying the means of social production (MATOS:1982, p.12).

Its protagonists denounced American imperialism in Vietnam and the colonialist policy of France, always having as an ideological reference the construction of a fraternal and egalitarian society. Therefore, they did not, of course, liquidate French capitalism, but they contributed decisively to strengthening the search for new paths to socialism by combating both “real socialism” and “real socialism”. “American way of living”, in the name of Freudian-Marxism (sic) and libertarian thought.

However, those who placed themselves behind the “barricades of desire” could not go much further, as they had neither the strength nor a strategy aimed at the liquidation of capitalism. Indeed, the communists – despite the cracks in the Soviet bloc – were still, along with the socialists, the only ones who had the means and credibility to be protagonists of structural transformations in French society. The revolutionary pretensions of some of Maio's protagonists were therefore limited to the “superstructure”, that is, the renewal of customs, the enhancement of freedom and the effective exercise of citizenship.

But no changeist political project, in consolidated democracies today, will be able to succeed if it has not incorporated this legacy of May, decisive for the democratic regime, embodied in the permanent opening of politics to citizens and rooted in their right to full participation in the life of society. polished.

Repercussions in the social and political current

The May 1968 uprising raised expectations that it could not, by definition, satisfy, regarding its supposed capacity to implode the French political system, paving the way for socialism. The results of the elections called by De Gaulle, after facing the biggest workers' strike in the history of France, could hardly be favorable to the university protesters, in view of the conservative profile of the majority of the French electorate.

However, until today, there are those who believe that the perspective of transforming the revolt into a revolution would have been feasible, generating a new socialist, democratic and libertarian political alternative. Big mistake! It would probably have resulted in a civil war in which revolutionary pretensions would be crushed, resulting in a serious setback for democracy.

In fact, it is not enough, in order to pave the way for democratic socialism, to combine social mobilization with the ideological challenge to the consumer society, both of which are exemplary present in the contagious enthusiasm of French students. Socialism, to be built, needs the support of the vast majority, as Marx reminds us in the Communist Manifesto.

The collapse of “real socialism” (I prefer the term “bureaucratic-statist regimes”) has shown that insurgency, when limited to a minority portion of the population, can initially raise considerable acceptance, but fails to achieve an electoral majority, when this is called for. exercise their sovereignty by voting. On the other hand, the persistence of polarization between the Soviet bloc and the so-called “free world” did not contribute to the outbreak of social movements inspired by the Spring, nor to the fall of dictatorial regimes.

Nevertheless, already in the 1970s, several dictatorships in Europe – such as Salazar's, in Portugal and Franco's, in Spain, collapsed – and several Latin American countries, in the XNUMXs, initiated or continued a process of political opening that culminated in the end of authoritarian regimes.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 rekindled the libertarian flame, paving the way for a new left, and for social movements, in Europe and elsewhere, that embody the political practices and the mores revolution – viscerally anti-authoritarian – of the Spring of May .

However, the victory of neoliberalism, with its policy aimed at the sacralization of the market and exacerbated individualism, which became hegemonic in the 1990s, produced the false sensation that the libertarian ideas arising from the spring of May had become “demodées".

It was necessary to wait for the XNUMXst century for the emergence of social movements with different features, but boasting characteristics, forms of organization and libertarian flags similar to those unfurled in the French students' revolt, and equally focused on contesting the establishment.

Some of the most recurrent characteristics of the French May present in current “anti-system” mobilizations were: spontaneous generation of movements and their best-known characters, without prerogatives of command and without hierarchy, preference for direct action and distrust of State institutions . And also the diversity of leaders, ideologies, opinions and demands, such as the defense of the environment, the fight for effective equality between men and women and for the democratization, at all levels, of society.

The target of these struggles, not always clearly perceived, remains capitalism, now in its neoliberal guise, as well as the institutions and practices that legitimize it. In the words of Sergio Halimi (as in May 1968): “A general distrust serves as cement for the popular movement, distrust towards economic liberalism, which crowns a society of castes. But, above all, distrust of the arrogance of the current political system, which the ruling class transformed into the praetorian guard of its privileges” (HALIMI, 2020).

Others, such as Laval and Dardot, warn that “we must not underestimate the difficulty of inventing new institutions that work explicitly to prevent appropriation by a minority, to prohibit the misrepresentation of its proposals and also to prevent the ossification of its norms” (LAVAL and DARDOT, 2020).

Some of the outstanding manifestations and experiences in the current century, which incorporated most of the characteristics present in the May revolt, were the Occupy Wall Street (OWS), in 2008 in the USA; that of the “indignados” in Spain in 2009; the gigantic mobilizations carried out in Chile in the years 2019 and 2020.

OWS began on September 17, 2011, in the financial district of Manhattan, New York, and has spread to the most important American cities. On the OWS website it is described as “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political opinions”, aiming for real change, from the bottom up. The movement also intends to “see an assembly in every backyard, on every corner because we don't need Wall Street or politicians to build a better society”.

In the authoritative opinion of Joseph Stiglitz, “OWS has few economic characteristics, but strives for a democracy not controlled by money. That makes it revolutionary.”

The “Indignados” movement, which started in May 2011, had its strongest moment on the 15th of that month, when it organized protests in 58 Spanish cities. Protesters mobilized for profound changes in politics and society, denouncing “caste” (i.e., the establishment) and the party system. They did not spare the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its policies favorable to neoliberalism; nor the communists, sclerotic by dogmas and authoritarian practices. Not even the unions, even if “leftist”, which did not represent them or take measures that benefited them.

The main leader of the Indignados movement, Pablo Iglesias (currently Deputy Prime Minister of Spain), summarized his criticism of this “old left” with the following boutade: “if you want to get it right, don't do what you want”. During the protests, a series of heterogeneous demands emerged, having, however, in common, the desire to create a new political order, with transparent parties and open to participation, guarantee of social rights and their expansion, and support for proposals feminists.

the metaphor assault the sky, referring to the Paris Commune, in 1871, was also evoked to qualify the French May and the Indignados movement, which bear a resemblance to the Commune, in its utopian and libertarian aspects.

Of the “anti-system” movements, only two of them – the Indignados and the one that gave rise to Syriza in Greece – generated political parties. We can be inspired by the ideas and forms of organization of the May revolt, described above. As described by Cristophe Aguiton in his book La gauche du vintième siécle: survey on a refoundation, “dès sa naissance, le nouveau parti a lancé la constitution de cercles, des structures locales ouvertes, fonctionnant au consensus ou dans des lieux ouverts pour facilitater l'implication de tous ceux qui le souhaitent” (Aguiton: 2017, p.195) .

Finally, the large-scale demonstrations, unprecedented in Chile, organized by women, held in March 2019 and repeated in June, are a notable example of assimilation of the ideals of autonomy, democracy, gender equality and direct participation in political life. , which had as a precursor the Spring of May. In addition to this agenda, Chilean mobilizations also incorporate slogans critical of the “system” based on complaints about the specific situation of students, migrants and workers “precarious like all of us”, in contrast to the anesthesia of the unions (GAUDICHARD: 2017, p. 59).

It can be inferred from Caccia Bava's analysis of the demonstrations of recent years in Latin American countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia, that they, despite their heterogeneity, present common aspects to the May rebellion, and to the strategies of struggle then adopted. He says: “The specific claims become politicized, such as the cancellation of the increase in subway fares, the mobilizations are transformed, become politicized and are no longer satisfied with concessions made by frightened governments. They want profound changes, a new political order. It is the demand – now met in Chile – for a new Constitution (BAVA, 2020, p. 2).

Alvaro Linera, former Vice President of Bolivia, points out that, despite the growing convergences and similarities between the methods and objectives of current national social movements, they encompass very diverse manifestations, from traditional claims for wage improvements, demonstrations against globalization and challenges to anti-feminist legislation (in Spain) – an example of “two lefts ignoring each other”. Hence his proposal to create an “international of social movements, encompassing both left-wing militants who protest in the streets and those who work in governments, workers and intellectuals”.

It cannot be assumed that the great mobilizations of the XNUMXst century are directly dependent on the Spring of May. However, it is undeniable that ideals leftist it is, consciously or not, present in the innovations they introduce, and in their more general claims. The 1968 rebellion was inspired, like the recent mass mobilizations, by valuing the collective interest, accompanied by the rejection of individualism, which, in many different historical contexts, led to harsh State repression (BULARD: 2020).

These struggles aimed yesterday as today at building a democratic and fraternal society. They stimulate new forms of party organization and sociability characterized by pluralism, broad citizen participation and contestation of policies and values ​​that serve as a support to the order of Capital.

Roberto Schwarz wonders if there is “a known wireless connection full of promises”, between challenges to establishment occurred in Berkeley, Paris, Prague, Brazil and elsewhere, or whether they are "illusory". The magnificent popular demonstrations that took place in the years 2019 and 2020 provide a positive answer to this question, indisputable objective elements. They demonstrate that the libertarian ideas of May 1968 continue to inspire those who today fight for more democratic and participatory societies.

To conclude, I share the opinion of Vladimir Safatle when he suggests that the Brazilian left, following the example of these insurgent movements, strives for boldness and, putting aside its persecutory delusions, goes to fight with the enthusiasm typical of the builders of tomorrow. (SAFATLE: 2012, p. 89).

* Rubens Pinto Lyra, PhD in Public Law and Political Science, is Professor Emeritus at UFPB.


AGUITON, Christopher. La gauche du XXème siècle: investigation sur une refondation. Paris: La Découverte, 2015.

BAVA, Silvio Caccia. “The Fear of the Crowd”. The Diplomatic World. Jan. 2020. BULARD, Martine. “Fragmenting the Collective”. The Diplomatic World. Jan. 2020. GAUDICHAUD, Frank. The feminist tide in Chile. The Diplomatic World, nº 142, May 2019.

HALIMI, Sergio. From Santiago to Paris, people on the streets. The Diplomatic World, nº 150. Jan. 2020.

IGLESIAS, Pablo. Can we do politics after the crisis. Madrid, Ed. Akal, 2014. LAVAL, Christian and DARDOT, Pierre. The Ordinary: An Essay on the Revolution of the XNUMXst Century

MATOS, Olgaria. Paris 1968: The Barricades of Desire. Sao Paulo: Ed. Brasiliense, 1981.

Alvaro Linera. “We need an International of social movements”. Interview. Carta Maior, 18 Nov.2009.

SAFATLE, Vladimir. The left that is not afraid to say its name. Sao Paulo: Three Stars, 2012.

SCHWARZ, Robert. May 1968 – Interview with Ricardo Musse. In: whatever. São Paulo, publisher 34, 2019.

STIGLITZ, Joseph. A Nobel Prize in Economics Explains Occupy Wall Street.

TORREBLANCA, Jose Ignacio. Asaltar los cielos: Can we or politics after the crisis. Barcelona: Penguin Randon Editorial, 2015.

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