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The Myth of 1968 Thought and the French Intelligentsia: Historical Commodity Fetishism and Ideological Rollback

France: Sorbonne occupied by students

France: Sorbonne occupied by students on May 28, 1968. By Eric Koch for Anefo -, CC0, Link

Gabriel Rockhill is the executive director of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique and professor of philosophy at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The author would like to express his gratitude to Jared Bly for his assistance in proofreading and finalizing the formatting for the references in this article, as well as for his insightful suggestions regarding some of the translations.

“The petty bourgeois is afraid of the class struggle, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion, to its main object.”

– V. I. Lenin1

A Dialectical Analysis of 1968

“Events are the real dialectics of history.”

Antonio Gramsci2

Like any major social and political movement, the events referred to as those of May 1968 have multiple different aspects and internal contradictions. They cannot be easily summed up in terms of a single significance, and they were themselves the site of class struggles, with various groups vying for power, pushing and pulling in different directions. This is as true of the past as it is of the present, in the sense that the battle over historical meaning continues long after the event itself has passed.

A dialectical approach to ’68 begins with the recognition of the infinite complexity of the events, while also concretely abstracting from them in order to establish a heuristic framework that makes sense of some of their fundamental traits. This frame can be situated at a greater or lesser level of abstraction, allowing for a multiscalar analysis, meaning one that can either cast the event at its most macro level, or hone in on microdevelopments. For such an analysis to function, of course, it requires a coherent relationship between the different scales, so that they can be nested within one another.

For the purposes of this study, I will briefly outline the general framework before turning to one particular element: the role of the French intelligentsia and, more specifically, what is referred to as French theory. There were at least two major forces at work in the ’68 uprisings in France. On the one hand, there was the youth and student movement of the baby-boom generation, driven in part by the expanding postwar middle-class stratum and the rapidly rising student population. It was largely characterized by an anti-establishment ethos and rife with what Michel Clouscard referred to as a “transgressive libertarianism” (which sometimes seamlessly merged with explicit anticommunism, à la Daniel Cohn-Bendit). On the other hand, there was a massive mobilization of workers that led to the largest strike in the history of Europe and palpable gains for the working class.3 While the former was largely affiliated with the New Left, including its libertarian and culturalist orientations, the latter has sometimes been described as engaging in the so-called Old Left politics of the struggle of labor against capital.4

Bourgeois history has primarily retained from ’68 the spectacle of the student-led revolts in the heart of Paris: the barricades in the Latin Quarter, the occupation of the Sorbonne, the libertarian sloganeering, and so forth. A significant segment of the intelligentsia, particularly anarchist, Maoist, Trotskyist, libertarian socialist, and Marxian currents, wrote in support of these revolts and often joined them in the streets and the various occupations. Marxist-Leninist intellectuals generally questioned the strategic clarity of the unorganized petty-bourgeois and anticommunist politics of many of the more vocal students, which they criticized for being gauchistes and beholden to the illusory belief in a revolutionary situation.5 At the same time, many of these intellectuals also recognized the youth uprising as an important catalyst for a new phase of class struggle, and they stalwartly supported the mobilization of workers.

These different segments of the intelligentsia, as we shall see, were not those that rose to global prominence as major contributors to the phenomenon known as French theory.6 On the contrary, those marketed as the ’68 thinkers—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Bourdieu, and others—were disconnected from and often dismissive of the historic workers’ mobilization. They were also hostile to, or at least highly skeptical of, the student movement. In both senses, they were anti-’68 thinkers, or at a minimum, theorists who were highly suspicious of the demonstrations. Their promotion by the global theory industry, which has marketed them as the radical theorists of ’68, has largely obliterated this historical fact.

The Idealist Analogy

“Structures do not descend into the street [Les structures ne descendent pas dans la rue].”

-Phrase written on a blackboard during the occupation of the Sorbonne

In the dominant historical ideology, there is such a close affiliation between what is known as French theory and the uprisings of 1968 that there is often no need to demonstrate the existence of any concrete material connections between them. Given the rising prominence, through the course of the mid- to late 1960s, of the intellectuals affiliated with the problematic but predominant labels of structuralism and poststructuralism—including the major market successes of books like Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) and Lacan’s Écrits (1966)—it is frequently presumed, moreover, that there is a causal relationship between these theoretical developments and the practical contestation of the status quo. This correlation has undoubtedly been fostered by the fact that the grand arrival of these intellectual trends in the United States, and their subsequent global promotion under the label of French theory, is commonly dated to 1966, which meant that much of their initial international reception was bound up with the historical conjuncture of 1968. Discussing “the perceived connection between fashionable philosophers such as Louis Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, and the student revolts of 1968,” Gary Gutting writes, for instance: “it was tempting to see their philosophical radicalism as somehow of a piece with the students’ political radicalism.”7

More often than not, however, the association between French theory and ’68 is a free association devoid of any concrete evidence, as when authors make claims like the following: “In 1968, a year of insurrection and manifestos…Roland Barthes coincidentally proclaimed, in an essay which had just appeared in French for the first time, what he called ‘The Death of the Author.’”8 Lacking any substance, such statements are not, strictly speaking, false, because they are not really asserting anything more than a chronological proximity. Instead, they rely on connotation and proof by association to suggest that there must be some kind of connection, as in Jason Demers’s claim that “the context for much of the thought that constituted post-structuralist philosophy was May ’68.”9 Some of the celebrated French theorists have, moreover, done much the same, as in Derrida’s oft-cited reference to the events of May in the opening lines of his October 1968 lecture on “The Ends of Man.” After briefly evoking them, he immediately bracketed all analysis, claiming that it would require a lengthy investigation, and he bluntly concluded: “I have simply found it necessary to mark, date, and make known…the historical circumstances in which I prepared this presentation. They appear to me to belong, by all rights, to the field and to the problematic of our conference.”10 He then proceeded to present a lecture that had no clear relationship to the events of ’68, and which focused primarily on a close reading of a philosopher known more for his support of Nazism than any interest in anticapitalist or anti-imperialist activism (Martin Heidegger).11

At times, these connotative free associations morph into denotative statements, as in Gutting’s claim that “in contrast to most other French philosophers, including Foucault and Deleuze, he [Derrida] maintained a certain discrete distance from the student revolt of May 1968.”12 In extreme cases, the semblance of an argument is actually formulated, as in the book by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut brazenly entitled La pensée 68 (translated as French Philosophy of the Sixties). Although their primary objective in writing the book was obviously to promote their own work in defense of liberalism over and against what they perceived as the “anti-humanism” of “68 thought,” the slapdash historical methodology they relied upon has also been deployed by those who venerate French theory and its purported political or ethical radicality. Rather than engaging in the hard labor of a materialist history of actually existing social relations and practices, they indulged in an unaccountable idealist history based on conceptual abstractions, freewheeling correlations, and the extensive use of modal verbs, all of which were purportedly justified by some nebulous generational “spirit of the sixties.” They therefore focused almost exclusively on what had been said about ’68, instead of on what had actually been done, and they purported to distill from French theory and the activism of May through June of 1968 a common essence or “logic.”13

Let us consider, in this light, the authors attacked as ’68 thinkers by Ferry and Renaut: Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, and Lacan. Foucault, to start with, was in France for only a few days during the uprisings, and he did not participate in them, nor did he partake in acts of solidarity or express public support for the movement.14 This is for good reason: he had personally participated in the Gaullist academic counter-reform undertaken by the Minister of Education, Christian Fouchet, which aimed at making the university better serve the interests of a modernized techno-scientific capitalist economy. The Fouchet reform, as it was called, has been widely recognized as one of the principal triggers for the ’68 movement. The students mobilized to reject what they argued was a limitation of student curricular choices, imposed financial hardship, a disguised form of selection, and an overall streamlining of the process of turning them into cogs in the capitalist machine.15 Judging from the minutes of the meetings of the commission on literary and scientific teaching on which he served, Foucault did not show any signs of opposing this counter-reform, and he even wrote several preparatory reports for the commission’s work.16

As Didier Eribon rightly reminds us, we must be careful not to project the image of the politicized Foucault of the early 1970s back onto the classical academic and dutiful administrator who was deeply enmeshed and invested in the power networks of les normaliens (the students of the elite École Normale Supérieure, or ENS).17 Indeed, Foucault was commonly described before ’68 as a “dandy” who was “violently anti-communist.”18 Although he discreetly expressed his solidarity with certain aspects of the student struggles in Tunisia in 1967–68, and in spite of the fact that he later acknowledged the importance of May for the re-orientation of his work, it is equally clear that he was on the other side of the French barricades in 1968.19 This is one of the reasons why Foucault was viewed with suspicion by left intellectuals when he returned to France in late ’68. “He had the reputation,” according to Bernard Gendron, “of being condescendingly apolitical, a ferocious critic of the French Communist Party…a Gaullist technocrat, and a denier of the power of human agency.”20 Cornelius Castoriadis provided a similar assessment: “Foucault did not hide from his reactionary positions until 1968.”21

Jean-Claude Passeron has described, in an interview on the radio channel France Culture, how Bourdieu was correcting exams with him in Parisian cafés during the uprisings, paying scant attention to the social struggles. “His remarkable absence was noted during the events of May 1968,” writes Pierre Mounier, “his activism being limited to specialized interventions on higher education, unlike many of his sociologist colleagues.”22 “The romanticism of the student protesters,” Craig Calhoun explains, “did not seduce him any more than the dominant versions of Marxism at the time, opposed as he was in particular to the leftist tendency [tout particulièrement à la tendance gauchiste] to abolish the separation between science and politics.”23 Bourdieu’s research center was the only one at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique that continued to function in May. According to Christine Delphy, who was a research assistant at his center in 1968 and was actively engaged in the movement, Bourdieu called her in May and asked if he should participate. She responded that he should because it was important and the students had been inspired by his theses in The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture (1964 in French). However, he remained “absent from the streets” and was not “with ‘the left,’” according to his biographer Marie-Anne Lescourret, with the exception of his participation in a protest march on May 13.24 “Later,” Delphy explained, “I discovered what it meant, for him, to be involved: he asked his researchers to stay in their offices photocopying his works and distributing them to the protesters.”25

It is worth recalling that Bourdieu directed this research center for the anti-’68er par excellence, Raymond Aron. The latter had direct access to considerable U.S. funds for anti-Marxist social-scientific research, and he was the major intellectual spokesperson in France for the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anticommunist propaganda organization that was revealed to be a front for the Central Intelligence Agency).26 Bourdieu had developed his early work under Aron’s supervision, served as his assistant at the Sorbonne, and became such a close friend that they used the informal tu form in conversation. Although their relationship had been strained by Bourdieu’s publication of The Inheritors and they had a falling out around 1968, it was not until the 1990s that Bourdieu would acquire the reputation of being a committed intellectual for his defense of the welfare state against neoliberalism.27 In Sketch for a Self-Analysis (2004 in French, 2008 in English), where he further developed an argument begun in the final chapter of Science of Science and Reflexivity (2001 in French, 2004 in English), Bourdieu clearly distanced himself from the philosophers who he claimed had responded providentially to the expectations of the ’68 revolts. According to his internal analysis of institutional and private power games, these thinkers had shown every sign of “a conservative reaction to the threat that the rise of the social sciences, especially through linguistics and ‘structuralist’ anthropology, represented for the philosophers.”28 Following in the tradition of his mentor, Aron, Bourdieu preferred so-called empirical evidence to what he dismissed as the “revolutionary posturing” of leftism. The following statement, which testifies to the widespread but faulty historical amalgamation between “postmodernism” and “radicalism,” is worth citing in full:

This apparently tepid, prudent position [of mine] no doubt also owes a lot to the dispositions of a habitus that inclines me towards a refusal of the “heroic,” “revolutionary,” “radical,” or better yet, “radical chic” posture, in short of the postmodern radicalism identified with philosophical profundity—as well as, in politics, a rejection of “leftism [gauchisme]” (unlike Foucault and Deleuze), but also of the Communist Party or Mao (in contrast to Althusser). Likewise it is no doubt the dispositions of the habitus that explain the antipathy inspired in me by sayers [phraseurs] and doers [faiseurs], and the respect I feel for the “toilers of proof [travailleurs de la preuve].”29

Bourdieu thus positioned himself as a social scientist rigorously pursuing Aron’s line, pretentiously situating himself above the petty fray of politics and class struggle (as if Aron’s orientation was not political through and through, as should be clear from his financial backers and his rabid anticommunism).

Unlike his friend, Maurice Blanchot, who “was at all the demonstrations, all the general assemblies, and took part in composing pamphlets and motions,” Derrida was “somewhat withdrawn or even reserved about some aspects of the May ’68 movement.”30 He did march with the students on May 13 and organized a general assembly at the ENS. However, he described his reaction to the movement in the following terms: “I was on my guard, even worried in the face of a certain cult of spontaneity, a fusionist, anti-unionist euphoria, in the face of the enthusiasm of a finally ‘freed’ speech, of restored ‘transparence,’ and so forth. I never believed in those things.”31 Derrida was not, as he himself explained, a ’68er, and his “heart was not ‘on the barricades.’” Bothered by what he labeled “the call for transparency, for communication without relay or delay, the liberation from every sort of apparatus, party or union,” he admonished that one should be wary of “spontaneism” as much as “of workerism, of pauperism.”32

In a revealing interview in 1989, in which he discussed the period around ’68 and his aversion to Althusserian Marxism and the French Communist Party (PCF), Derrida flatly proclaimed that the concept of class, as it had been inherited, is meaningless: “I cannot construct finished or plausible sentences using the expression social class. I don’t really know what social class means.”33 It should not be lost on us that his guiding assumption is that his subjective inability—as a petty-bourgeois intellectual—simply reveals objective reality: class is meaningless (that is, if I cannot formulate plausible sentences using the term, then it cannot possibly mean anything to anyone else). Relying on a strawperson version of “the economist dogma of Marxism,” which completely ignores innumerable texts in the actually existing tradition of Marxism, Derrida went on in the same interview to berate this very same tradition for its supposed lack of conceptual and discursive refinement, recommending that “some engagement with Heidegger, or a problematic of the Heideggerian type should have been mandatory.”34 His rejection of the category of class thereby went hand in hand with an attempt to impose the philosophy of an unrepentant Nazi as a theoretical requirement for those engaging with Marxism in any way. Regarding the mobilizations in ’68, it is thus in no way surprising that he expressed disdain for what he perceived as a manifestation of collective ignorance since some of those involved appealed to “social class” and had not been studying Heidegger. He also chided the student movement for being “unrealistic” and potentially leading “to dangerous consequences, as in fact it did two months later with the election of the most right-wing Chamber of Deputies we had ever had in France.”35 While some naïvely continued the struggle over the summer, Derrida sagely retired from Paris to settle at his parents’ home to write.

Lacan also remained on the sidelines of the movement, showing signs of curiosity and mild support, while also playing the role of the “stern father” who summarily invoked, according to Elisabeth Roudinesco, “the inability of any revolution to free the subject from his servitude.”36 He did ask to meet Cohn-Bendit and other leaders of the student movement in the spring of 1968, when he signed petitions and provided “effective and discreet” financial support for certain actions.37 He also cosigned, on May 10, a letter of support for the students published in Le Monde. However, Jacques Sédat and other scholars have emphasized Lacan’s irritation, mixed with disappointment, during the events of May and in the following months, especially in the face of the rising Maoist current.38 Lacan’s daughter and son-in-law were committed Maoists involved with the Lacanian group connected to Les Cahiers pour l’analyse at the ENS. In Roudinesco’s opinion, the Maoist commitment of this Lacanian group “was a disaster for Lacan” because the cohort of students on whom he had founded his hopes deserted him for their political commitments.39 When Alain Geismar approached Lacan for financial support for the Gauche prolétérienne, Lacan apparently responded, “The revolution, c’est moi [I am the revolution]. I don’t see why I should subsidize you. You are making my revolution impossible and taking away my disciples.”40

Lacan was heckled by the movement when he made his appearance on the Vincennes campus in December 1969, and students pressed him to perform a self-critique.41 Referring to himself as a “liberal” who is “antiprogressive,” he mocked the students for playing “the role of helots [ilotes] of this regime [presumably the Pompidou regime],” and he exclaimed: “always, the revolutionary aspiration has only a single possible outcome—of ending up as the master’s discourse [L’aspiration révolutionnaire, ça n’a qu’une chance, d’aboutir, toujours au discours du maître]. This is what experience has proved. What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.”42 By externalizing “the revolutionaries” as a group to which he did not belong, Lacan situated himself on the side of the master, or, at the very least, on the side of the sovereign intellectual who masters the situation of the failed revolutionaries.43

Castoriadis, whose work with the libertarian socialist organization Socialism or Barbarism is widely recognized as a precursor to the ’68 student and youth movement, provided a lapidary corrective to Renaut and Ferry’s slipshod analysis. He described it as totally nonsensical because, for them, “‘68 thought’ is anti-68 thought, the thought that built its mass success on the ruins of the ’68 movement and in function of its failure.”44 Indeed, although there was sometimes tepid and circumspect support for the students, the workers’ movement was generally met by silence, skeptical withdrawal, criticism, opposition, and sometimes flight on the part of the prominent professors associated with French theory. “May 68,” wrote Daniel Bensaïd, “is certainly not the microcosm of the Parisian intelligentsia, which ascended from the street to the living room [l’intelligentsia parisienne, remontée de la rue au salon].”45 Dominique Lecourt, who was a politically active student at the ENS from 1965 to 1975, recalls that: “In reality, the events of May ’68 left the thinkers ‘of the sixties’ speechless at the time. And their disciples were thrown into enormous confusion. I recall some discreet retreats to the countryside, some hasty departures to Mom and Dad’s when gas began to run out at the pumps.”46

Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was working in May in the heart of the Latin Quarter, where the Parisian student mobilization was concentrated, simply withdrew from his research center at the Collège de France and sought refuge in the posh sixteenth arrondissement. He found May 1968 “repugnant” and decried it as yet another step in the degradation of the university.47 Barthes also withdrew, reacting to the events with what his biographer, Tiphane Samoyault, refers to as “relative indifference.”48 He did wander around the Sorbonne on May 14, and he took part in a heated discussion on May 16, when “very critical remarks were directed to him.”49 However, he otherwise kept his distance from the protests, neither signing the “Revolution, Here and Now” manifesto in issue 34 of Tel Quel, nor joining in the creation of the Comité d’action étudiants-écrivains révolutionnaires (founded by Jean-Pierre Faye, with Michel Butor, Jacques Roubaud, Marguerite Duras, Maurice Nadeau, Blanchot, and Nathalie Sarraute). Formulating both direct and indirect criticisms of the disruptive theatricality of the events in his public and private writings, Barthes referred in his correspondence to May–June as “painful times” riddled with anxiety, and admitted that he could not find his place in what was happening.50

Hélène Cixous was at the University of Paris in Nanterre, where the student movement began, and she watched the events, apparently astonished by the desire for a total uprising.51 Emmanuel Lévinas was at the same university, where he was teaching in the philosophy department, alongside supporters of the movement such as Mikel Dufrenne. However, in the words of his biographer, Lévinas “respected authority, order, and hierarchies, and he did not appreciate that young people wanted to dictate their law to the elders.”52 “If he did not condemn them openly,” she writes, “he nowhere participated in the events; he seems to have fled them, if one believes one of his students.”53 Gilles Deleuze was far from being a militant in the style of his future friend Félix Guattari (whom he would meet in 1969), but he remained receptive to the student movement in Lyon, publicly displaying his support, and participating in some of the student-organized activities.54 He then spent the summer at his family’s property in Limousin to finish his dissertation, which he defended at the Sorbonne in early 1969, in one of the first dissertation defenses after the occupation. His dissertation committee apparently feared that gangs of students might interrupt the proceedings, but they did not. Later in life, Deleuze consolidated a number of his reactionary views by taking a historically uninformed position, peremptorily proclaiming: “All revolutions fail [foirent]. Everyone knows it: we pretend to rediscover it here [with the anticommunist writings of Glucksmann and Furet]. You have to be a complete idiot [débile] [not to know that]!”55

Althusser had been ill since April 1968, and he withdrew from the events, aligning himself, though at a distance, on the position taken by the PCF, namely that this was not a revolutionary situation.56 This provoked the students’ slogan “Althusser à rien” or “Useless Althusser.” It is worth noting that on March 15, 1969, Althusser published an article on the events of May in which he recognized the world-historical contribution of the “profoundly progressive” student revolt to “the global class struggle against Imperialism.”57 At the same time, he criticized the media’s extensive focus on the students and highlighted the fact that the workers’ general strike was much more decisive. Moreover, he called for a systematic analysis and positive critique of the ideological limits of the students and of the PCF. His manuscript from 1969–70, published as On Reproduction, claims that the events of May ’68 and those that followed provided a kind of empirical verification of his thesis that class struggle has always existed in ideological state apparatuses like the school, the family, the Church, and so on.58

For Althusser’s disciples, who had written Reading Capital with him in 1965, the situation was rather complicated.59 According to François Dosse, Pierre Macherey continued his classes at the Sorbonne but in difficult conditions. Étienne Balibar would remain only a few months in 1969 at the University of Paris in Vincennes, as his classes were apparently disrupted by André Glucksmann and Maoist activists shouting “Balibar-toi!” or “Bali-beat it!” Jacques Rancière was not involved in the movement and “had no links with any militant group,” but he would quickly distance himself from his maître, due to what he perceived as a lack of support for the movement of revolt against the bourgeois order. In 1974, he then published a harsh critique of Althusserian Marxism.60 Alain Badiou also ran in the Althusser circles, though he was not one of the authors of Reading Capital. He was a social democrat at the time, and involved in the Unified Socialist Party.61 He became radicalized and moved toward Maoism in what he calls the “fourth May ’68,” or the supposed search for a new conception of politics in the decade or so following ’68.62

A number of participants and commentators have remarked that there was at least partial support for the uprising on the part of the professoriate.63 However, with few exceptions, the students—and especially the workers—involved in the struggle were met with suspicion by the most prominent French theorists. They were not invested in practically challenging the apparatus of knowledge in capitalist society, from which they benefited materially, nor were they keen on taking up the fight of labor against capital. They therefore stood on the sidelines of the revolt and waited for “the emotion (l’émoi)” to pass, when they did not directly criticize or repudiate it (l’émoi was Lacan’s preferred term for May ’68, since he rejected the idea that it was an event, and this allowed him to make a sardonic play on words with the homophonic et moi?, apparently in order to reference the narcissistic question of the ’68ers: “and me?” or “what about me?!”).64 Those involved in the struggle were the real thinkers and actors of ’68, while the major French theoreticians reacting to them were the anti-’68 thinkers or, at the very least, the theoretical skeptics of ’68. It is worth noting in conclusion that when Castoriadis imagined, as a counterfactual, the response of the protesters on the barricades to the circulation of an anthology of writings by Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu, he exclaimed: “it would have, at best, provoked uncontrollable laughter, at worst, made the movement and the participants lose their erections and disperse.”65

Historical Commodity Fetishism

A perverse inversion has occurred over time. The so-called structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers associated with French theory have come to be identified with the ’68 movement by a muddled historical amalgamation that serves very clear political ends. For some, like Ferry and Renaut, its purpose is to bury French theory with the legacy of ’68 by relying on a nebulous correlation between a political failure and the bankruptcy of a particular theoretical tradition. For others, particularly within the larger Anglophone world, it is a matter of promoting a radical image of a group of thinkers by establishing a vague but persistent analogy between alleged intellectual rebels and actual political militants. The only thing that remains of the historical event itself is its symbolic value, which is detached from material practice in order to function as a free-floating signifier that can be used to promote—or denigrate—a product of the global theory industry.66 This is an exemplary case of what I propose to call historical commodity fetishism: the actual social relations operative in political struggles disappear behind the enchantment—or the enchanted disgust—with an intellectual commodity.67

Although there were certain gains for workers and some university reforms, the ’68 uprising failed to topple the government and significantly alter the overall power dynamic or economic system. It did succeed, however, in reorganizing French society to some degree by creating more space for the emergence of the petty-bourgeois class stratum and its consumerist aspirations, as well as its attendant ideology of “libertarian liberalism,” to use Clouscard’s vocabulary. The latter foregrounded the important role played by the Marshall Plan in fostering the development of this new middle-class layer of consumers prone to ideologically support the capitalist system because it allows them to indulge in a U.S.-inspired market of desire, with its requisite French twists. The injection of over $13 billion (the equivalent of $161 billion in 2023) into Western Europe, approximately 18 percent of which was directed to France, was aimed at bolstering this class stratum and keeping this entire region within the procapitalist, anticommunist fold.

This project of U.S. financial and cultural imperialism helped create an economic situation characterized by a high level of exploitation in production and a libertarian consumerist model for the new petty-bourgeois class layer, which included the intelligentsia in the broad sense of the term (professors, researchers, journalists, pundits, and so on). This contributed to developing a society in which, in Clouscard’s well-chosen words, “everything is allowed, but nothing is possible [tout est permis, mais rien n’est possible].”68 The libertarian explosion in consumerism for one class fraction, which promised the end of taboos and prohibitions, was thereby conjoined with an increasingly repressive productive sphere (to which we will return at the end of this study). May ’68 for Clouscard, as Aymeric Monville has explained, benefited above all the postwar educated middle classes, which sought to become dominant without changing the material foundation of society. It announced the decline of “the two great forces of Resistance [communism and Gaullism] and the return to favor of Atlanticism, from Giscard to Mitterrand.”69

French theory is a consumer product that rose to global prominence in this context. Many historians date its explosive appearance on the world market to October 1966, when the Ford Foundation lavishly funded, to the tune of $36,000 ($332,000 today), an international conference at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center in Baltimore, as well as a series of follow-up events.70 It brought together an impressive array of rising stars, including the likes of Derrida, Lacan, and Barthes. The few who could not attend in person, such as Deleuze and Gérard Genette, sent in papers. No Marxists were invited, with the possible exception of Lucien Goldmann. The absence of Althusser, a towering figure in French structuralism at the time, was particularly notable. His membership in the PCF surely raised some major concerns since this was not the intellectual tradition the Ford Foundation was interested in promoting. That said, Althusser is in many ways a pivotal figure whose work, while powerfully anchored in certain ways in the Marxist tradition, opened up paths of research that led rather far afield. It is not surprising, then, that beginning in the 1970s, his version of structuralist Marxism would come to be marketed in the Anglophone world by New Left Books (later Verso).71 Characterized by a lack of historical-materialist analysis, an academic fetishization of the close reading of canonical texts, and a highly problematic dilution of Marxism with Lacanianism, this type of Marxism—and particularly that of Althusser’s students or acolytes (Badiou, Rancière, Balibar, and so on)—proved itself over time to be compatible with the consumer product of the global theory industry known as French theory.

Let us return, though, to the Ford Foundation and its funding of the 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins. Like the other major capitalist foundations, Ford has a long history of working so closely with the CIA that the same people often made careers in both organizations. At the time of the conference, the president of the Ford Foundation was none other than McGeorge Bundy, just off a stint as the U.S. National Security Advisor. He had been involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion, the intensification of the imperialist war in Vietnam, and various clandestine operations. He was extremely well trained, moreover, in psychological warfare. In 1949, he had collaborated with Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell of the CIA on a study of the role of the Marshall Plan in the intellectual world war on communism undertaken by the agency. The latter used $200 million a year of funds tied to the Marshall Plan to finance the work of anticommunist intellectuals, journalists, union leaders, politicians, and other leading figures in Western Europe. It is thus not surprising that the Ford Foundation would be involved in the promotion of French theory. As a matter of fact, the same year that it funded the conference known for launching this new trend in the United States, it took over the costs of supporting the Congress for Cultural Freedom in order to try and save this expansive anticommunist propaganda organization in the wake of the revelations that it was a CIA front (which Bundy had known).

French theory was internationally promoted as radical and innovative, as anti-establishment and transgressive, as libertarian and unorthodox. Its market niche was the new petty-bourgeois class stratum in the imperialist core that indulged in liberation through consumerism while generally shunning the emancipation of workers via the socialist project. Its radicality was thus primarily discursive and theoretical, while in the political realm the major French theorists were—with very few and relatively short-lived exceptions—“anti-totalitarian” and openly opposed the project of actually existing socialism. Their mantra, we might say by drawing on Clouscard, is that “theoretically everything is allowed, but practically nothing is possible” (that is, the capitalist system cannot be fundamentally altered). Their promotion as ’68 thinkers, in spite of the fact that they were skeptical of or even opposed to the student movement, and especially the mobilization of workers, is best understood as the result of the consumerist utopia of the new petty-bourgeoisie in the wake of ’68: radicality could be bought in the form of transgressive discursive products that served as a symbolic ersatz for practical engagement in radical politics. The so-called ’68 thinkers were thus those who caught the rising wave of post-’68 radical consumerism, and their rhetorical pyrotechnics were promoted as a way of making revolution in theory where it had failed in practice. They thereby played the role of radical recuperators. They channeled the fervor of revolt, much of which was fully justified, into a project of complacent consumerism and practical anticommunism, all the while advancing their individual careers by endlessly differentiating their particular products within the global theory industry. Presented as revolutionary thinkers, they are actually the marketing symbols of a failed revolt, and ultimately of the consolidation of post-’68 anticommunist Atlanticism.

Moreover, the intellectuals who had indeed participated in the preparation of the movement and committed themselves directly to it have largely been marginalized or banished from the global phenomenon of French theory. Rather than discursive radicality, they did something, which often took the form of supporting the student movement. It is of the utmost importance to note, in this regard, that there is of course a marked distinction between different forms of political engagement. Many of the intellectuals who concretely backed the students embraced what Domenico Losurdo referred to as populism: the celebration of “the masses” and opposition to any form of power, including that of communist parties or socialist states. This is a profound political problem that plagued many of those in the Trotskyist, Maoist, libertarian socialist, and anarchist movements. Losurdo summed it up in the following terms, explicitly referencing the culture of ’68: “In absolutizing the contradiction between masses and power, and condemning power as such, populism proves incapable of drawing a line of demarcation between revolution and counter-revolution.”72 This populist embrace of insurgency tends to fetishize spontaneous contestation in general at the expense of developing a coherent socialist strategy for building real working-class power through parties and eventually the seizure of the state. In the case of France, Clouscard cited in particular those purportedly radical—but ultimately antirevolutionary—intellectuals who followed Herbert Marcuse in assuming that the working class had sold out and was no longer a potential revolutionary force. This discourse confers “to the libertarian consumer of the new middle layers a narcissistic ‘revolutionary’ status.”73 As Clouscard lucidly explained: “This inversion thus consists in attributing to the producer (proletariat) the negative aspect of the new society, and in attributing to the libertarian consumer the revolutionary positive aspect!”74

One of the most well-known cases of an intellectual who supported the students is that of the great enemy of the structuralists and so-called poststructuralists, who is generally not considered to be part of the cutting-edge developments of French theory, although he had garnered much international recognition for his literary work and his existentialism: Jean-Paul Sartre.75 Together with Simone de Beauvoir, who shared a similar orientation, they invited Geismar to the latter’s apartment one late night to initiate them into the struggle and explain what was happening.76 On May 8, Sartre and Beauvoir published, along with Colette Audry, Michel Leiris, and Daniel Guérin, a declaration in Le Monde calling for workers and intellectuals to support the struggle of the students and teachers. Two days later, Sartre signed, along with Blanchot, Lacan, Henri Lefebvre, André Gorz, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Nadeau, and others, an article in Le Monde that clearly affirmed their solidarity with the global student movement. On his own, Sartre also supported the students in an interview on Radio-Luxembourg, and he met and conducted an interview with Cohn-Bendit, in which he praised their power of imagination and their “extension of the field of possibilities.”77 On May 20, Sartre spoke at the Sorbonne, which had been occupied for a week, expressing his admiration for the movement. Beauvoir also frequented the Sorbonne, attended the discussions, and expressed her hope that the activists would “shake the regime and perhaps even bring it down.”78 In June and early July, Sartre published two articles in Le Nouvel Observateur in support of the movement.

The difference between Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s reactions and those of the structuralists was widely remarked upon by the press at the time. More than one observer pointed out that the explosive actions of the “subjects” of history signaled a resurgence of their Marxian philosophy, which the structuralists had sought to bury beneath their purportedly scientific theses on the death of the subject, the relative or complete stability of structures, the end of Marxism, and so forth.79 In fact, the idea that May–June ’68 called into question the hegemony of structuralism and signaled its demise was so widespread that Le Monde published a report in November 1968 entitled “Was Structuralism Killed by the May Movement?” “The spring of 1968,” wrote François Bott, “at least marked the end of a trend, the death of a gadget for intellectuals [structuralism].”80 It is worth recalling that what came to be referred to as “poststructuralism” in the Anglophone world was largely understood in France at the time to be an extension of the structuralist project. In other words, the category of structuralism was used in France to refer to both the classical structuralists à la Lévi-Strauss and ultrastructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Kristeva.

The other intellectuals who were concretely engaged in the movement remain in the shadows of the most prominent French theorists. Their work is virtually unknown in the circles that generate boundless commentaries and panegyrics on the work of figures like Derrida and Foucault. Michel Simon, a professor and militant with the PCF, offered one of the most insightful analyses of the bifurcation of the movement. In a text published in September 1968, he encouraged his readers to look at the event with both eyes, not succumbing to the siren song of gauchisme because the objective situation was not revolutionary, while simultaneously recognizing that it was an opportunity to organize a common democratic front calling for significant reforms against the tyranny of monopoly capitalism. “The strike movement clearly presented itself for what it was,” Simon wrote, “a class struggle with demands. The academic-intellectual movement found itself disguised to a large extent in what it wasn’t: a revolutionary combat with universal objectives, not ones particular to the social strata engaged in the struggle.”81 Like a number of other intellectuals in the PCF (Lucien Sève, Louis Aragon, Rolande Trempé, Roger Garaudy, and so on), who were engaged in intense internal debate at the time, Simon’s support for the movement sought to steer it in the most productive direction: away from petty-bourgeois gauchisme and toward real gains for the working class. Clouscard was not a formal member of the PCF and was highly critical of the culturalist ideology of ’68ers who sought to displace the social by the societal, class struggle by cultural issues. However, he applauded, like Simon, “the movement undertaken by the workers, aiming to lead to undeniable advances, both economically and culturally.”82

Jacques Jurquet, one of the founders and the general secretary of the Maoist-leaning Parti communiste marxiste-léniniste de France, participated with this relatively new party in the May-June events, which he chronicled and wrote in support of at the time.83 Later that year, he published an analysis of the movement under the title Le printemps révolutionnaire de 1968, in which he insisted on the importance of fully supporting the student and worker struggles while also reserving the right—à la Marx in relation to the Paris Commune—to later criticize certain errors.84 Geismar was one of the leaders of the university mobilization, and he called for a general strike in higher education on May 3. He was a lecturer (maître assistant) in a physics research center and the general secretary of the National Teachers’ Education Union (Syndicat national de l’enseignement supérieur). In the wake of 1968, he founded, with Benny Lévy, the Maoist organization la Gauche prolétarienne. Alain Krivine, who was working as an editorial assistant for the Hachette publishing house at the time, was the director of the Trotskyist movement of the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (JCR), which he had founded with Henri Weber (who later taught in the philosophy department at the University of Paris VIII, alongside Deleuze, Badiou, and Jean-François Lyotard). Bensaïd, who would also go on to teach at the University of Paris VIII in the philosophy department established by Foucault, was actively engaged in the JCR, which played a significant role in the ’68 movement. Guy Hocquenghem, another member of the JCR who would later teach philosophy at Paris VIII, participated in the occupation of the Sorbonne and wrote for the journal Action.85 In the wake of ’68, he collaborated with another militant intellectual involved in the movement, Guérin, in founding the Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire. Guérin had written Anarchism in 1965.86 His daughter, who was involved with the occupation of the Sorbonne, later recounted how there was such a demand for copies of his book that she brought boxes full of them to the occupation.87 When Guérin himself visited, the anarchist wing of the Sorbonne announced that he would be running a debate on self-management, and he gladly obliged. He subsequently participated in numerous debates at the occupied Sorbonne, wrote in support of the movement, and provided a historical contextualization of the events in relation to the long tradition of workers’ struggles.88

I have already mentioned the group Socialism or Barbarism. One of its leaders, Castoriadis, expressed his strong support for the movement in a text written and distributed in May.89 Apparently, he did not visit the barricades and occupations himself due to his fear of being sent back to Greece and thus handed over to the CIA-backed dictatorship.90 Cohn-Bendit claimed, according to Dosse, that Castoriadis was indeed “present” at the Sorbonne because his own political consciousness had been formed by reading the group’s journal, Socialism or Barbarism.91 The initiator of the occupation of the Odeon Theater was Jean-Jacques Lebel, a former collaborator of Socialism or Barbarism.92 Georges Petit recalls that the group was in contact at the time and decided, informally, to be part of the movement.93 Lyotard is surely the best-known figure from this group in the English-speaking world, although he still remains somewhat on the sidelines of the major trends of French theory and is not generally recognized for his early political commitments, but rather for his later writings on postmodernism and the differend. He was very involved in the March 22 movement in Nanterre and invested in the struggle in general. He spoke out, wrote for the movement, and marched with the students.94

Some of the members of the group that had formed around the Marxian journal Arguments (1956–62) were also very active. Jean Duvignaud, with Georges Lapassade, put a piano in the courtyard of the Sorbonne and participated in the occupation with Jean Genet for about a fortnight.95 Edgar Morin wrote two articles in support of the events in Le Monde (May 15 and June 10) and has been described as very involved.96 The Situationist International has often been identified as an important resource for the student and youth movement. The work of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem had circulated widely, and the Situationists were actively engaged in the occupation of the Sorbonne, and then of the Institut pédagogique national and the École des arts décoratifs.97 Lefebvre was also an important figure. He has explained how many of his students were involved, and how he “stirred things up a bit” and participated in the movement.98 He also quickly wrote and published a book entitled The Explosion, in which he provided an analysis of the uprising that discusses important aspects of Marxism-Leninism—like the need for party-based organizing and leadership—while also rejecting “statism” and “centralization” in favor of a celebration of contestation and spontaneity.99 There were, of course, many others, and this list is far from exhaustive.100

The contrast could thus not be starker between the supposed ’68 thinkers discussed in the previous section, who were absent from or skeptical of the movement, and the ’68 intellectuals who were openly supportive and directly involved in various—and sometimes opposing—ways. Whereas the former made illustrious global careers as radical theorists, basking in the glorious aura of ’68 while generally shunning overt class struggle, the latter have largely remained in the shadows, as secondary or unknown figures whose work has often been judged unworthy of extensive translation or commentary. Moreover, it should be clear by now that the fault lines largely follow the opposition between the trendsetting structuralist and poststructuralist movement, on the one hand, and the contestatory theory of those intellectuals who were practically engaged in various forms of anarchism or Marxism on the other. “If there is a ‘68 thought,’” concludes Dosse, “it is not really to be found among the proponents of structuralism, but rather on the side of its adversaries: Jean-Paul Sartre, Edgar Morin, Jean Duvignaud, Claude Lefort, Henri Lefebvre…and, of course, Cornelius Castoriadis. His current of Socialism or Barbarism always decried structuralism as a pseudo-scientific ideology that legitimated the system.”101

We can thus see with greater clarity the social function of the historical commodity fetishism that structures much of the historiography around ’68. It serves to excise the work of the more radical side of French theory, be it the marginalized anarchist, Maoist, Trotskyist, libertarian socialist, or Marxian thinkers on the one hand, or the largely excluded Marxist-Leninists, on the other. This intellectual commodity fetishism mobilizes the symbolic value of ’68 as a marketing slogan to promote the discursive radicality of those figures who had largely turned their backs on the movement (and especially the workers). Even in the case of the few figures who might be listed as partial exceptions to this general tendency due to leftist commitments in their youth—intellectuals like Lyotard, as well as, to a lesser degree, Julia Kristeva and Jean Baudrillard, who apparently supported the ’68 movement in certain ways (though Baudrillard was in Australia at the time)—the waxing of their international careers in the global theory industry bears a striking correlation to the waning of their more radical political views.102 The end result of all of this is that the left border of critique has been shifted to the right, moving from Marxism or other anticapitalist theories to a purportedly radical discourse that is devoid of any systemic, materialist critique of capitalism, and, most importantly, reasoned support for an alternative system.

Mistaking the Consequences for the Cause

If the fashionable intellectuals today associated with ’68 were generally not involved in contributing to the development of the movement, neither prior to its rise to prominence nor during its period of intensification in May and June, they did respond to it in various ways that significantly marked their theoretical trajectories.103 These reactions were quite varied, and they bring to the fore some of the important political differences between this group of theorists, while also further elucidating one of the reasons for the widespread assumption that they were all so-called ’68 thinkers. The ruse of idealist historiography, grounded in the presumption that it is ideas that drive history, consists in ignoring materialist etiology in favor of giving pride of place to thoughts and discourses. Such an approach thereby suggests that the intellectual effects of ’68—namely shifts in discourse—were somehow bound up with the political activism that preceded them.104 Although an exhaustive assessment of intellectual reactions to ’68 is beyond the scope of the current analysis, at least four orientations are readily identifiable.

Anarchist-Inspired Radicalization, at Least in Theory

One reaction to May–June ’68 was political radicalization, which largely took the form of a turn toward anarchism and Maoism (in the Western sense of an anarchist-oriented form of “Marxism”).105 Thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Rancière, and Badiou all moved in this direction and later described the events as a significant turning point.106 Foucault’s colleagues at the time described him as someone who had maintained a distance from militant involvement, and they had trouble believing in his sudden about-face: “they were all very surprised, to put it mildly, by his swing to the far left and by the radical positions he took during the 1970s. ‘I never managed to believe it really,’ says Francine Pariente, who was his assistant from 1962 to 1966. One thing is certain: there was nothing to make them suspect that he would evolve in this direction.”107 Foucault himself claimed that ’68 was exceptionally important for his work and constituted the moment when he entered into the political fray: “it is certain that, without May 1968, I would never have done what I did, regarding the prison, delinquency, sexuality.”108 Deleuze refers to ’68 in much the same way: “I, for my part, made a sort of move into politics with May 1968.”109 His work with Guattari in the subsequent years explicitly presented itself as a consequence of May.110 Badiou was also radicalized, moving from the position of a social democrat to that of a Maoist, maintaining even in his later writings that “we are still the contemporaries of May ’68.”111 Rancière broke with what he considered to be the stagnant Marxism of Althusser and gradually embraced the May revolt in its wake, eventually coming out as an anarchist: “I’d been behind in relation to the event, but the more time passed, the more I believed in 68.… I began to invert my understanding of what I had participated in up to that point in time [Je me suis mis à voir complètement à l’envers ce à quoi j’avais participé jusque-là].”112 It is worth noting that Foucault’s overt political engagement on the left was relatively short lived and, although Deleuze and Rancière remained self-declared leftists, this was primarily in theory qua anarchists. In the case of Badiou, he did continue to be committed to some form of political organizing, but he also positioned himself—like the anarchists—against party politics and socialist state-building projects.113 Much of the radicality of this group thereby remained discursive, and any Marxist or Marxian influences were tempered by anarchist elements, as well as the dilution of scientific socialism with liberal and reactionary discourses, such as those of Freud and Nietzsche respectively.114 In this regard, these thinkers remained close to the next group, which sought to discursively recuperate the radical energies of ’68.

According to the sociologist Jean-Pierre Garnier—whose analysis aligns with that of Simon, Clouscard, and others—the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia was not interested in overthrowing capitalism, but was instead intent on opening up traditional French society to make more room for professional intellectuals of their ilk. Citing in particular Foucault, Deleuze, and Cixous, insofar as they were some of the government’s interlocutors in the post-’68 project of creating the experimental University of Vincennes, Garnier claims that he overheard Georges Pompidou say: “All these people, the famous ‘restless ones [les agités]’, if we give them classrooms, if we give them amphitheaters, they will make their revolution in a vacuum, and during this time, we will have peace in the street.”115 This is, according to Garnier, precisely what happened: the professors who self-presented as radical in the wake of ’68 were given an academic platform for their innocuous discourses and allowed to advance their intellectual careers at a distance from practical class struggles.

Discursive Recuperation

A second response, which overlaps with the first, consisted in attempting to recuperate the radical spirit of the uprisings by eschewing the field of overt political action—where, it is presumed, every revolt inevitably fails, is co-opted, redeploys the very same logic of mastery that it attacks, remains trapped within “metaphysics” or the “old symbolic system,” and so on—in favor of an investment in the purportedly revolutionary power of discourse and difference.116 In the immediate wake of ’68, to take one telling example, Barthes drew explicitly on Derrida’s theoretical distinction between speech and writing to advance the claim that “speech,” which was ubiquitous in May, is linked to “the will-to-seize” and is “the very voice of any ‘revindication,’” but is “not necessarily of the revolution.”117 In contrast, writing, which only played a very marginal role in the events of May according to him, is that “dizzying break with the old symbolic system.”118 Echoing Derrida very explicitly, he concluded that: “we will regard as suspect any eviction of writing, any systematic primacy of speech, because, whatever the revolutionary alibi, both tend to preserve the old symbolic system and refuse to link its revolution to that of society.”119

In 1975, Cixous and Catherine Clément formulated a similar argument and presented it as if they were announcing an obvious platitude: “Everyone knows that a place exists that is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That place is writing.”120 Although this is a patently false statement rooted in the bourgeois ideology of literature, numerous so-called poststructuralist thinkers, particularly in the wake of ’68, accepted the doxa according to which practical revolution was, if not impossible or dangerous, at the very least “highly problematic,” whereas theoretical and discursive “revolution” was not only possible but, somehow, more radical. By giving pride of place to difference, indeterminacy, heterogeneity, and a seemingly endless chain of other value signifiers, a revolution in writing could avoid the pitfalls of concrete political practice by focusing our attention on the more fundamental—and much more fundamentally complex—domain of the discursive and the symbolic. An über-sophisticated politics of signification would thereby come to replace the benighted politics of liberation, as if a revolution in theory were preferable to a revolution in practice, at least according to the siren song of petty-bourgeois intellectuals.121

In this shift from practice to discourse, and thus from materialist to idealist history, ’68 itself became a floating signifier that could be opportunistically resignified. Lacan’s portentous proclamation at the end of the discussion following Foucault’s 1969 lecture on “What Is an Author?” is exemplary in this regard. Earlier in the question-and-answer session, Goldmann had formulated a Marxist critique of what he identified as Foucault’s “non-genetic structuralism,” which dissolves the subject into structures and reduces human agency to a set of functions within these structures. Citing a famous statement written on a blackboard during the occupation of the Sorbonne—“Structures do not descend into the street”—Goldmann argued that “it is not structures that make history, but men, even though their action always has a structured and meaningful character.” Foucault semantically sidestepped the question by disingenuously claiming, as he was prone to do, that he “never” used the word “structure,” and he avoided the issue of ’68 entirely.122 Lacan, however, later made one of his signature oracular pronouncements. In spite of—or, perhaps, because of—its elliptical nature and the nonexistence of evidence to support it, this proclamation would be retained by later history: “if there is something demonstrated by the May events, it’s precisely the descent of structures into the street.”123 No one knows what this means, of course, but the overwhelming suggestion is that the structuralists, far from turning their backs on the revolt as conservative guardians of the structures in place, were somehow its animating spirit.124 It does not matter that the movement explicitly attacked structuralism, which was identified as “the science of the new mandarins,” and that the statement “structures do not descend into the street” was the conclusion to a three-page motion prepared by Catherine Backès-Clément for a general assembly in ’68 and discussed as a critique before Algirdas Julien Greimas.125 By detaching ’68 from material history and transforming it into a floating signifier, it could be recuperated by the masters of discourse and connected to an alternative chain of signifiers to suggest that it meant something radically different than what the foolish and uncouth participants in the struggles thought it meant.


Some intellectuals who were receptive to the radical impulses of May–June sought to channel them into institutional reforms. This is seen perhaps most clearly in the case of Paul Ricœur, who was teaching at the University of Paris in Nanterre, where the student uprising began. Not surprisingly, given his other work, he attempted to link student aspirations to university reforms in a “dialectic” of dialogical reconciliation. When he had the opportunity to actively intervene, after becoming dean of the university in April 1969, Ricœur decided, with the board of directors at the beginning of the following year, to make a solemn declaration on campus insecurity and request the banalisation of the university, which meant allowing the police to come on campus to “maintain order.” The police reacted immediately, and in only a few days clashes of an unprecedented violence broke out. According to a student cited in an article in Le Monde on March 5: “‘The silent majority’ is calmer and can better work, read or discuss among anarchists than among the police. There have been more wounded in two days, more lives threatened than in two trimesters of disorder.”126 The police bombed the students with tear gas canisters to dislodge them before beating those suffocated by gas, shouting “Death to the students!” and throwing them in what they called “hearses” (ambulances).127 Afterwards, Ricœur made a statement declaring that he disapproved of “the haste with which the banalisation was carried out” (but not the banalisation itself) and complaining of not being consulted on its immediate execution, as if there were an irrevocable difference between the authorization of banalisation and its implementation.128 He thereby sought refuge in an illusory liberal proceduralism in order to exculpate himself for the police beating of students on his watch. Many of his colleagues in the department of philosophy—including Lyotard, Henri Duméry, and Mikel Dufrenne—opposed banalisation. The left criticized Ricœur severely, and the moderates even turned their backs on him. A Maoist tract entitled “Ricœur as He Is” declared: “The police are there to put the immigrants back in their slums. They were called by Ricœur, hand in hand with the bosses and the bourgeois government.… Ricœur is not neutral! Ricœur is unmasked: racist and a policeman, here is the face of a liberal today.”129


Aron led the public charge against the student-worker movement, but many others joined in with alacrity. Pompously asserting that one should not back down in the face of “the terrorism of student power,” he created a committee for the defense and renovation of the French education system, along with Michel Crozier, Annie Kriegel, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and others. Aron had apparently been reassured in his convictions during the final days of May, when Alexandre Kojève explained to him on the telephone that it was not a revolution at all because no one got killed and they were just dealing with “crap runoff [ruissellement de connerie].”130 François Mauriac and André Malraux expressed their support for the Gaullist regime, as did Crozier.131 Lévi-Strauss “viewed the uprising as an unqualified disaster,” and he spearheaded a campaign in the fall of 1968 to protect the aristocratic elitism of the Collège de France from democratizing reforms.132 To take but a final example, Bourdieu described Georges Canguilhem’s reaction as follows: “we often talked during the turbulent days of May 1968, which were a great trial for him: he was one of those ‘oblates’ who had given everything to the educational system and who saw the sympathy of their pupils (of my generation) for the student movement as a betrayal inspired by opportunism or ambition.”133

The International Political Economy of Ideas: Policing the Left Border of Critique

“Postmodernism is, in its negative way, a ruthlessly ‘totalizing’ system, which forecloses a vast range of critical thought and emancipatory politics—and its closures are final and decisive.”

– Ellen Meiksins Wood134

A simple counterfactual clearly illustrates the political effects of the international promotion of French theory as ’68 thought. Imagine a world in which the most radical, cutting-edge, and important theory—which intellectuals around the world were more or less obliged to read as a prerequisite for being taken seriously as proper theorists—was the revolutionary philosophy of figures like Clouscard and Simon, or for that matter, the thought of those radicalized by ’68 like the great African revolutionary Thomas Sankara, or again that of contemporary Marxist theorists working in this tradition like Georges Gastaud, Annie Lacroix-Riz, and Aymeric Monville. Consider a universe in which the structuralists and poststructuralists—or, at least, a very significant portion of them—would be identified as elitist academics who, under the banner of an aristocratic radicalism akin to that of Nietzsche, haughtily rejected egalitarian politics and the international socialist project, often defending the status quo, or even sinking into reactionary conservatism.135 In such a world, their so-called conceptual and discursive radicality would be recognized as a form of social capital for intellectual mandarins in the imperial core who enjoy swimming downstream while pretending—in accordance with the idealist habitus, where saying always takes precedence over doing—that it is sufficient to proclaim, by repeated incantation, that things are otherwise, or radically different.

That being said, it is not at all surprising that the leading theory in the capitalist world, dominated as it is by U.S.-style imperialism, is a theory without revolutionary political significance, which leaves everything in its place while creating the illusion of radical change. It is perfectly logical that the international political economy of ideas would conform to international political economy tout court. Moreover, the Anglo-U.S. promotion of French theory as an haute culture luxury product has made an important contribution to political economy by leading the historical charge against a powerful force within the postwar intelligentsia: Marxism, and in particular Marxism-Leninism. The attempt to replace Marxist philosophy by the discursive pyrotechnics of antirevolutionary French theory, and the promotion of the latter as the most critical and avant-garde of all theories, has had far-reaching consequences. At least in certain circles, it has served to police the left border of critique by discrediting revolutionary thinkers as passé, unsophisticated, or beyond the pale. Such an orientation seeks to consign them to oblivion—or, even worse, postmodern resignification à la Derrida’s Specters of Marx—while redefining the very nature of French theory, or critical theory more generally, in terms of the work of nonrevolutionary thinkers (it is this theory, we are repeatedly told, that is the most “radical” and “dangerous”). This shift is, moreover, part of a much broader project: the great Western ideological realignment by which the intelligentsia and other members of the professional managerial class stratum have been coaxed—or prodded—away from revolutionary politics and toward the noncommunist left, or other orientations further to the right.

In the case of France, both the ideological and the repressive state apparatuses were mobilized in this project. While French theory was being culturally promoted, draconian forms of state and parastate repression were unleashed on the anticapitalist left, including the intelligentsia. As early as June 12, 1968, Raymond Marcellin, the Minister of the Interior and former Vichy official, announced that protests were forbidden during the campaign for the upcoming elections, and he invoked an antifascist law from 1936 to ban eleven leftist organizations involved in ’68 (while allowing the extreme right, including violent movements like Occident, to act with impunity). This was only the beginning, however, of years of counterinsurgent repression, which included extreme police violence against protesters; widespread censorship and destruction of leftist publications and tracts; extensive harassment and arrests of activists who distributed leftist literature, hung posters, or screened films about ’68 without state authorization; dragnet identity checks aimed at rounding up leftists; the empowerment of fascist commando units that were allowed to attack leftist mobilizations; deportations and visa refusals for left-wing foreign nationals, including political refugees; the prohibition, in 1971, of any protest or public meeting “susceptible to disturb public order”; and so on.136 Some of the numbers are staggering: 890 arrests for distributing left-wing tracts between November 1969 and March 1970; 1,284 citations against leftists in 1970; 1,035 prison sentences for leftists between 1968 and 1972.137 Intellectuals involved in ’68—as well as journalists, publishers, and artists—were directly targeted, leading to suspensions, firings, jail time, and prison terms.138 While the fashionable French theorists critical of ’68 rode the ascendant wave of discursive radicality and profited handsomely from a market niche that was being globalized by the Anglo-U.S. academy, the radical intellectuals involved in ’68 faced both cultural demotion and direct repression.139

Through its free association with ’68, French theory has thus sought to supplant revolutionary theory, in the precise sense of the tradition of Sankara and Lacroix-Riz mentioned above. Summarily rejecting revolutionary theory as simplistic because it strives to clearly elucidate and contribute to the struggles of working people, French theory presents itself as radically new, infinitely complex, and much more refined based on a remarkably simple equation: an increase in the coefficient of discursive obscurantism and bourgeois cultural references necessarily means an augmentation in political sophistication (as if more ideology was better ideology). The fact that this Dionysian play of signifiers is not linked to a clear revolutionary project of collective emancipation simply confirms its historical role. It serves to police the left border of critical theory by resignifying critique as an über-sophisticated, petty-bourgeois social ritual for the initiated, which poses absolutely no threat to the extreme exploitation, oppression, warfare, and ecological destruction inherent in capitalism. This is the ultimate purpose of the myth of ’68 thought: to displace revolutionary substance by pseudorevolutionary symbols, thereby promoting an imaginary revolt in discourse against the practical struggle for the oppressed and working masses of the world.


  1. I. Lenin, Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky in Collected Works, vol. 28 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 261.
  2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings: 1921–1926, ed. Quintin Hoare (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 15.
  3. On these two ’68s, see Michel Simon, “Mai–Juin 1968, deux mois de luttes de classes en France,” La Nouvelle Critique 197 (September 1968): 2–9; Aymeric Monville, Misière du nietzschéisme de gauche: De Georges Bataille à Michel Onfry (Bruxelles: Éditions Aden, 2007), 61; and the documentary film about Michel Clouscard by Ossian Gani and Fabien Trémeau, Tout est permis mais rien n’est possible (2011).
  4. I am using these terms with the utmost caution since the very division of the “Old” and “New” Lefts is often based on an incorrect and disingenuous depiction of the “Old Left” as somehow dedicated to predominantly white male labor struggles at the expense of battles around race, gender, sexuality, the environment, and so on.
  5. Although gauchiste can be literally translated as “leftist,” in this context it means “ultraleftist.” Gauchisme or ultraleftism, as Simon explains, “is at once the absence of a program and the adventurist assessment of forces, the rejection of a strategy and a tactic founded on the careful assessment of class forces. This character trait is typically petty bourgeois.” Simon, “Mai–Juin 1968,” 9. All translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.
  6. For the purposes of this analysis, the expression French theory will be used to refer to the work of a coterie of trendsetting intellectuals socially affiliated with structuralism (including what is referred to in the Anglophone world as poststructuralism), who have all become stars within the global theory industry. This includes figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray.
  7. Gary Gutting, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 371.
  8. Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 18. There are innumerable other examples that could be cited. To take but one, Noëlle McAfee dedicated a paragraph to May ’68 in her summary of Julia Kristeva’s life and context, without actually explaining the connection between the former and the latter. However, the preceding paragraphs had outlined Kristeva’s research on revolution in language, which had been described as simultaneously philosophical and political, and the following one discussed her persistent Maoism in the wake of the failure of ’68—her “farewell to politics” would not occur until her 1974 trip to China. Noëlle McAfee, Julia Kristeva (New York: Routledge, 2004), 8. McAfee thereby created the impression that Kristeva’s life and work were seamlessly intertwined with May ’68 without actually saying as much.
  9. Jason Demers, The American Politics of French Theory: Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault in Translation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 4. Demers’s book, whose “aim is to work through what it means to think about French theory as a product of the global ’68 years,” proposes to make a method out of free association: “To approach theory associatively…is to think metonymically. Rather than substituting a term for a system, associative or metonymic thinking is driven by contiguity, by considering the influences that border, inflect, and are inflected by, thought.” Demers, The American Politics of French Theory, 6–7.
  10. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 114, translation slightly modified. Also see Gary Gutting’s discussion of how “this sort of sympathetic distance to leftist causes was typical of Derrida.” Gary Gutting, Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 21.
  11. Nevertheless, given Derrida’s essentialist and determinist approach to both philosophy and politics, clearly visible in the following quote, the reader is led to presume that there must of necessity be an essential relationship between his academic conference presentation and the events he invokes. “Every philosophical conference necessarily has a political significance,” he declared at the opening of his lecture. “And not only due to that which has always linked the essence of the philosophical to the essence of the political [ce qui depuis toujours lie l’essence du philosophique à l’essence du politique]. Essential and general, this political significance nevertheless weighs upon its a priori, exacerbates it in a way, and also determines it when the philosophical conference is announced as an international conference. Such is the case here.” Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 111, emphasis mine, translation slightly modified.
  12. Gutting, Thinking the Impossible, 20–21.
  13. In order to provide a semblance of validity to their historical assertions, Ferry and Renaut were nonetheless obliged to recognize that the “’68 thinkers” were not necessarily involved in the political movement, nor were the intellectual currents they were a part of “causes” or “effects” of the movement, although they nevertheless had what they call “the same logic.” Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, La Pensée 68: Essai sur l’anti-humanisme contemporain (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1988), 16; this “Préface” was not included in the English edition. “In the years and even the months immediately preceding the May crisis,” they write, “thoughts [des pensées] were being developed which, although it would surely be absurd to claim they influenced the course of events, may have had a less immediate but no less revealing relationship to the ’68 movement: these publications and the revolt in May may indeed have belonged to the same cultural phenomenon and may have constituted it, in different modes, like symptoms.” Ferry and Renaut, La Pensée 68, xviii–xix, emphasis mine, translation slightly modified.
  14. According to David Macey, Foucault “was present at the 50,000-strong meeting in the Charléty stadium on May 17, which demanded workers’ power in the factories and student power in the universities.” David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York: Vintage, 1994), 207. He also expressed in private some curiosity and admiration regarding what was going on, but he did not get involved himself or publicly express any solidarity at the time.
  15. Jean-François Lyotard, who was directly involved with the March 22 movement and subsequent developments, wrote that “the starting point of our struggle at Nanterre was a refusal of the Fouchet reforms.” Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 41. On these reforms, see Jacques Sauvageot, Alain Geismar, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Jean-Pierre Duteuil, La Révolte étudiante: Les Animateurs parlent (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968), 40–41; and David Caute, The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 211–36.
  16. See Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991), 128–43.
  17. “One should refrain, above all,” writes Eribon, “from projecting the image of a later Foucault onto the Foucault of that period [prior to 1968]. His colleagues from that time are in general agreement in placing him ‘more to the left,’ although this description is not unanimous. They describe him primarily as someone who was relatively distant from any militant involvement [tout engagement militant], despite his very real interest in politics. They were all very surprised, to put it mildly, by his swing to the far left and by the radical positions he took in the 1970s.” Eribon, Michel Foucault, 132, translation modified because entire passages were, strangely, left out of the English translation.
  18. Eribon, Michel Foucault, 136, 138. For a sustained critique of Foucault’s politics, see Gabriel Rockhill, “Foucault: The Faux Radical,” The Philosophical Salon, October 12, 2020,
  19. Macey suggests that Foucault later played up the intensity and the high stakes involved in the student struggle in Tunisia—which he did not write about at the time—in order to compensate for his political absence from May ’68: “It was undoubtedly true that the Tunisian students risked considerably more than their French counterparts, but there was also an element of self-justification in Foucault’s subsequent comments; in the milieu in which he moved after 1970, not having taken part in the May events was a serious sin of political omission, and he was often tempted to explain his non-participation by finessing potential critics with accounts of direct involvement in a struggle with much higher stakes.” Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 207.
  20. Bernard Gendron, “Foucault’s 1968,” in The Long 1968: Revisions and New Perspectives, eds. Daniel J. Sherman, Ruud van Dijk, Jasmine Alinder, and A. Aneesh (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 21–48.
  21. Cornelius Castoriadis, La Montée de l’insignifiance (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1996), 35.
  22. Pierre Mounier, Pierre Bourdieu, Une Introduction (Paris: Pocket/La Découverte, 2001), 217.
  23. Craig Calhoun, “Centralité du social et possibilité de la politique” in Le Symbolique et le social: La Réception internationale de la pensée de Pierre Bourdieu, eds. Jacques Dubois, Pascal Durand, and Yves Winkin (Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2015), 236.
  24. Marie-Anne Lescourret, Pierre Bourdieu: Vers une économie du bonheur (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2008), 233. Bourdieu also published an article in Le Monde on May 21, 1968, calling for the organization of an “Estates General” (états généraux) on teaching and research, which was cosigned by 130 professors, including Derrida and Paul Ricœur. See Pierre Bourdieu, Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, eds. Franck Poupeau and Thierry Discepolo (London: Verso, 2008), 41–45; and Lescourret, Pierre Bourdieu, 241–43. According to Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Bourdieu was listed as one of the speakers at the Sorbonne on May 20, when Sartre spoke at the “grand amphi.” Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération, vol. I, Les Années de rêve (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987), 523. For additional details on Bourdieu’s relationship to 1968, see Jeremy F. Lane, Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto, 2000) 80–85; Michael James Grenfell, Pierre Bourdieu: Agent Provocateur (London: Continuum, 2004), 65–71; and Philippe Artières and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, eds., 68: Une Histoire collective 1962–1981 (Paris: La Découverte, 2008), 191–97.
  25. Christine Delphy, “La Révolution sexuelle, c’était un piège pour les femmes,” Libération, May 21, 1998 (b.: Delphy’s name was spelled “Delphi” when this text was published). See also Lescourret, Pierre Bourdieu, 238–39.
  26. See, among other sources, Pierre Bourdieu, Sketch for a Self-Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 33–34. On Aron and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, see Gabriel Rockhill, “The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left,” The Philosophical Salon, February 28, 2017,; Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 2000); Pierre Grémion, “Écrivains et intellectuels à Paris,” Le Débat 103 (1999): 82; and Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (New York: The Free Press, 1989).
  27. Regarding his break with Aron, see Lescourret, Pierre Bourdieu, 240–41.
  28. Bourdieu, Sketch for a Self-Analysis, 76–77, translation slightly modified. Among Bourdieu’s numerous other statements on 1968, see for instance Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 159–93; Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York: The New Press, 1999), 7; Bourdieu, Political Interventions, 31–53.
  29. Pierre Bourdieu, Science of Science and Reflexivity (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 2004), 107, translation slightly modified.
  30. Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 197 and Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 332. Blanchot asked Derrida to write tracts, but he declined. On Blanchot’s involvement and Derrida’s distance, see Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire invisible (Seyssel: Éditions Champ Vallon, 1998), 469–83 and Maurice Blanchot, Mai 1968, révolution par l’idée (Paris, Gallimard, 2018).
  31. Jacques Derrida, Points…: Interviews, 1974–1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1995), 347.
  32. Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 50.
  33. Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971–2011, ed. Elizabeth G. Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 170.
  34. Derrida, Negotiations, 170, 173.
  35. Derrida and Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, 49.
  36. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 343.
  37. Jacques Sédat, “Lacan et Mai 68,” Figures de la psychanalyse 18, no. 2 (2009): 336; see also Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 336.
  38. See also Jean-Michel Rabaté, “Lacan’s ‘année érotique’” in Jacques Lacan: Between Psychoanalysis and Politics, eds. Samo Tomšič and Andreja Zevnik (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).
  39. Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 338. According to François Wahl, Lacan “thought the Maoists were mistaken, but he took his son-in-law’s and his daughter’s commitment very seriously and never made fun of them” (cited in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 337).
  40. Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 338.
  41. See Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 342.
  42. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Book XVII) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 207, 208. “When he thought desire for revolution might reflect merely desire for a master,” writes Roudinesco, “Lacan saw it as his duty to contrast the Maoist revolution—denounced as totalitarian—with the Freudian revolution, in his opinion the only possible alternative to a thought of the whole, and an action to match, that aimed at destroying the whole of thought.” Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (Book XVII), 344.
  43. See, in this regard, Nicos Poulantzas’s poignant critique of the Lacanian discourse inherent in the work of the nouveaux philosophes’ “hollow and pretentious metaphysics of Power and the State”: “It is not Marxism but this conception itself which reduces all power to the State, seeing in all power the consequence of this original reality, the Power-State. Everything is always a replica of the Master, the State and the Law (as required by the Lacanian version of psychoanalysis); for there can be no struggles and no social reality of any kind—be it power, language, knowledge, speech, writing or desire—except through the Power-State.” Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (New York: Verso 1980), 40–41, translation slightly modified.
  44. Cornelius Castoriadis, La Montée de l’insignifiance (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1996), 39.
  45. Alain Krivine and Daniel Bensaïd, Mai si! 1968-1988: Rebelles et repentis (Montreuil: PEC-La Brèche, 1988), 13. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Jean-Pierre Duteuil also claim that the leftist intellectuals “were a bit out of touch [un peu en dehors du coup], and that’s a good thing.” Sauvageot et al., La Révolte étudiante, 70.
  46. Dominique Lecourt, The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the mid-1970s (London: Verso, 2001), 27, translation slightly modified.
  47. See Emmanuelle Loyer, Lévi-Strauss: A Biography (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 468 and Claude Lévi-Strauss and Didier Eribon, De près et de loin (Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1988), 114, 116.
  48. Tiphane Samoyault, Barthes: A Biography (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 307.
  49. Samoyault, Barthes, 311.
  50. Samoyault, Barthes, 312.
  51. See Peeters, Derrida, 200.
  52. Marie-Anne Lescourret, Emmanuel Lévinas (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1994), 241.
  53. Lescourret, Emmanuel Lévinas, 240. Christophe Bident has juxtaposed Lévinas’ reaction of “severely” judging the movement to that of his close friend, Blanchot, whose enthusiasm Lévinas did not share. Bident, Maurice Blanchot, 470.
  54. See François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari: Biographie croisée (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2007), 216–18 and Frida Beckman, Gilles Deleuze (London: Reaktion, 2017), 39–41). Guattari, who owes much of his visibility in the Anglo-Saxon world to his association with Deleuze, participated in the occupation of the Odeon Theater and the National Pedagogical Institute. He is described by Dosse as “a fish in water” during ’68. Dosse, Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, 208–16.
  55. Pierre-André Boutang, L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (1996), transcribed at
  56. See Douglas Johnson’s “Introduction” to Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (New York: The New Press, 1993), xii. On the complex debates and struggles within and around the PCF in 1968, see Simon, “Mai–Juin 1968”; Roger Martelli, Communistes en 1968: Le Grand Malentendu (Paris: Les Éditions sociales, 2018); and Artières and Zancarini-Fournel, 68: Une Histoire collective, 336–47.
  57. Louis Althusser, “À Propos de l’article de Michel Verret sur ‘Mai étudiant,’” La Pensée 143 (February 1969): 11, 12.
  58. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), 158, 220.
  59. See François Dosse, History of Structuralism, Volume 2: The Sign Sets, 1967–Present (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 107–88.
  60. See Jacques Rancière, The Method of Equality (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 15.
  61. See Alain Badiou, On a raison de se révolter: L’Actualité de Mai 68 (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2018), 43–45.
  62. See Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2015), 33–51.
  63. See Sauvageot et al., La Révolte étudiante, 43, 76; Bernard Brillant, Les Clercs de 68 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003), 563; Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done (New York: Paragon, 1993), 425; François Dosse, La Saga des intellectuels français 1944–1989 Vol. II: L’avenir en miettes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2018), 21–28; and Alain Touraine, Le Mouvement de mai, ou le communisme utopique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968), 239–44. Épistémon (Didier Anzieu), who was teaching at the University of Paris in Nanterre and was an active participant in the movement, claimed that approximately a quarter of the professors were revolutionaries, a half reformist, and another quarter opposed to the movement. See Épistémon, Ces Idées qui ont ébranlé la France (Paris: Fayard, 1969), 89.
  64. Jacques Lacan, “En conclusion,” Lettre de l’École freudienne 9 (December 1972): 512. Lacan goes on to say on the subsequent page: “Forgive me for reducing the revolt to the revolution from which order always restores itself [la révolution dont se restaure toujours l’ordre].” Lacan, “En conclusion,” 513.
  65. Castoriadis, La Montée de l’insignifiance, 34.
  66. Aron, whose work was praised by Ferry and Renaut in their poorly researched book on ’68, was one of the first to instigate this process of symbolic abstraction by bitterly citing the fashionable intellectual trends affiliated with “Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser and Lacan,” as if they were key factors in understanding the context out of which the events of May–June emerged. See Raymond Aron, The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt (London: Pall Mall, 1969), 125.
  67. This historical commodity fetishism often goes hand in hand with a geographical commodity fetishism, according to which the “events of May,” particularly as they unfolded around the student movement in Paris, are severed from the global antisystemic movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For historical accounts that situate the developments in France in relationship to the international uprisings of the time, see Caute, The Year of the Barricades and Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein, Antisystemic Movements (London: Verso 1989), 97–115, as well as Chris Marker’s 1977 film, A Grin Without a Cat.
  68. Michel Clouscard, Néo-fascisme et idéologue du désir: Genèse du libéralisme libertaire (Paris: Éditions Delga, 2017), 130.
  69. Aymeric Monville, Les Jolis Grands Hommes de gauche: Badiou, Guilluy, Lordon, Michéa, Onfray, Rancière, Sapir, Todd et les autres… (Paris: Éditions Delga, 2017), 36.
  70. The Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins had been founded on the model of the sixth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études. This Parisian institution, which became the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in 1975, was funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations in a bid to counter the influence of Marxists in French universities and restructure French social sciences on the capitalist model prevalent in the United States. See, among other sources, Brigitte Mazon, Aux Origines de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales: Le Rôle du mécénat américain (1920–1960) (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1988). Barthes, Bourdieu, and Derrida all taught at the EHESS.
  71. It should be noted that Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays was published by Monthly Review Press in 1971.
  72. Domenico Losurdo, Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 337.
  73. Clouscard, Néo-fascisme et idéologue du désir, 9; see also Monville, Les Jolis Grands Hommes de gauche, 37.
  74. Clouscard, Néo-fascisme et idéologue du désir, 27.
  75. For an overview of Sartre’s involvement in ’68 see, for instance, Michael Scriven, Jean-Paul Sartre: Politics and Culture in Postwar France (London: MacMillan, 1999), 63–79.
  76. See Cohen-Solal, Sartre (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1985), 585. On Beauvoir’s participation, see Deidre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography (New York: Summit, 1990), 530–35. She claims that Beauvoir “viewed having been thrust into contact with the militants of ’68 as a fortuitous circumstance, believing that it gave her the confidence for her feminist activity in the decade when she became an outspoken internationally known advocate for women everywhere.” Bair, Simone de Beauvoir, 531. Delphy also pointed to ’68 as an important moment of crystallization for the feminist movement, highlighting in particular the founding of the group Féminin Masculin Avenir, or Feminine Masculine Future. Delphy, “La Révolution sexuelle,” 35.
  77. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Le Gauchisme: Remède à la maladie sénile du Communisme (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968).
  78. Beauvoir, All Said and Done, 424.
  79. See Épistémon, Ces idées qui ont ébranlé la France, 76.
  80. François Bott, “Le Structuralisme: a-t-il été tué par le mouvement de mai?,” Le Monde, November 30, 1968.
  81. Simon, “Mai–Juin 1968,” 4.
  82. Monville, Les Jolis Grands Hommes de gauche, 40–41.
  83. See Robert Mencherini, “JURQUET Jacques,” Le Maitron, August 25, 2009, updated November 25, 2014. For an overview of some of the various leftist groups and organizations in France at the time, see Artières, 68: Une Histoire collective, 350–57.
  84. Jacques Jurquet, Le printemps révolutionnaire de 1968: Essai d’analyse marxiste-léniniste (Paris: Éditions Gît-le-cœur, 1968), 45.
  85. Antoine Idier, Les Vies de Guy Hocquenghem: Politique, sexualité, culture (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2017), 49–52.
  86. Daniel Guérin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).
  87. See L. Muhleisen and Patrice Spadoni, Daniel Guérin (1904–1988)—Combats dans le siècle (Imagora Films, 1994), YouTube video, 1:20:47, posted by Liberté Ouvrière, September 6, 2015,
  88. See Daniel Guérin, Pour le Communisme libertaire (Paris: Les Amis de Spartacus, 2003), 163–67.
  89. See Edgar Morin, Claude Lefort, and Cornelius Castoriadis, Mai 68: La Brèche, suivi de vingt ans après (Paris: Fayard, 2008).
  90. Poulantzas was in much the same situation due to “the strict French legislation barring foreigners from political activity.” Keith A. Reader, Intellectuals and Marxism since 1968—The Structuralists (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987), 48.
  91. See Dosse, La Saga des intellectuels français, 32. On Castoriadis’s influence on Cohn-Bendit, see Judith Bernard’s 2015 interview with Dosse. François Dosse, “Peut-on penser la revolution sans les ouviers?,” interview by Judith Bernard, Hors-Série, YouTube video, 3:53, May 30, 2015, The influence that Socialism or Barbarism had on Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit is particularly clear in their book, Le Gauchisme.
  92. See Dosse, Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, 210.
  93. Philippe Gottraux, “Socialisme ou Barbarie”: Un Engagement politique et intellectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre (Lausanne: Éditions Payot Lausanne, 1997), 164.
  94. See Kiff Bamford, Jean-François Lyotard (London: Reaktion, 2017), 66–67.
  95. See Dosse, History of Structuralism, 2, 113. For details regarding Genet’s partial involvement with the movement, see Edmund White, Genet: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 501–7.
  96. See Morin, Lefort, and Castoriadis, Mai 68. Michel de Certeau was receptive to the movement and expressed his enthusiasm for it in an article in Études that came out in early June. See François Dosse, Michel de Certeau: Le Marcheur blessé (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2002), 158–60.
  97. See Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Debord: Le Naufrageur (Paris: Flammarion, 2015), 269–87.
  98. Henri Lefebvre, “Lefebvre on the Situationists: An Interview,” interviewed by Kristin Ross, October 79 (Winter 1997): 82.
  99. In one of the more insightful passages, Lefebvre writes: “Lenin emphatically distinguished between two levels: on the one hand, spontaneity and revolutionary instinct of the masses; and, on the other, theoretical knowledge of the process and its total context, as elaborated by intellectuals (Marx, Engels). The political party has the task of uniting the two levels, of articulating them, so that theory may orient the spontaneity of the working class and its allies toward an understanding of society as a whole and its complete transformation from base to superstructures and from the social division of labor to the institutions; this includes a transformation of the property relations, which are the key to this process. According to Lenin, the party unites the objective and subjective factors.” Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 38.
  100. In the long list of other intellectuals who supported the movement to varying degrees, we could add figures like Monique Wittig, Jean Baudrillard, Alain Touraine, and Jean-Paul Dollé. Above and beyond France, there has been ample debate on the role of Marcuse. According to some of the organizers—including Cohn-Bendit, Duteuil, and Geismar—few, if any, activists in their circles had actually read Marcuse (see Sauvageot et al., La Révolte étudiante, 47, 70). However, Marcuse himself was present in Paris at the time, and he participated in “innumerable highly charged political debates, extemporaneous speeches delivered to packed auditoriums at the Sorbonne and the École des Beaux Arts, and the organization of a ‘journée marcusienne’ at occupied Nanterre.” Barry Katz, Herbert Marcuse and the Art of Liberation: An Intellectual Biography (London: Verso, 1982), 185–86.
  101. Dosse, History of Structuralism, 2, 115, translation slightly modified. Kristin Ross makes a similar argument in her book May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 182–215. For the critique of structuralism as a pseudoscientific ideology, see Lefebvre’s L’Idéologie structuraliste (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971), Castoriadis’s The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998), as well as Castoriadis, “The Movements of the Sixties” in World in Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 47–57, and “The Diversionists” in Political and Social Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 272–80.
  102. Similarly, the elements that have been widely retained from Althusser’s work by the global theory industry have more to do with his philosophical contributions and his engagements with Lacan than with his practical dedication to certain aspects of the Marxist-Leninist tradition.
  103. “It is incontestably true that the celebrated ‘60s thinkers’ reacted to the events by reorienting their intellectual approach after the fact.” Lecourt, The Mediocracy, 28, translation slightly modified.
  104. As both Bernard Brillant and Pierre Grémion have aptly remarked, May–June 1968 remains a gap in the history of intellectuals because so many authors have concentrated on the halo surrounding the event and reactions to it post factum, rather than on what was actually being done at the time. See, for instance, Grémion, Écrivains et intellectuels à Paris, 80–81.
  105. Épistémon provided an interesting narrative of his radicalization in Ces idées qui ont ébranlé la France.
  106. “Absent from the scene in May–June 1968,” writes Bernard Brillant, “some of the ‘master thinkers’ of structuralism would later invest, for their part, in quasi-‘institutional’ places of contestation, such as the University of Vincennes, and would fight alongside its most radical tendencies.” Brillant, Les Clercs de 68, 564.
  107. Eribon, Michel Foucault, 132, translation slightly modified.
  108. Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits IV: 1980–1988 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1994), 81. This shift to the left was tempered by Foucault’s continued rejection of Marxism-Leninism, including its anarchist-driven transformation into French Maoism: “Foucault did not subscribe to the mythology of the établi [the établis were young intellectuals who established themselves in factories in order to organize], and spoke disapprovingly to Defert about the move into the factories, arguing that May would have had much farther-reaching effects in the sphere of knowledge if the struggle had been concentrated on the universities. He had no interest in arcane interpretations of Lenin. Nor did he share the contemporary enthusiasm for ‘studying Mao Tse-Tung thought,’ an activity which he regarded as quite meaningless.” Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 219. Moreover, in the wake of ’68, Foucault’s political sensibilities evolved in a direction similar to that of the rightward swing of his fellow anticommunist and ally, André Glucksmann: his “anti-totalitarian” critique of communism and embrace of “dissident” politics led to an increasing interest in liberalism. See Rockhill, “Foucault: The Faux Radical” and “Foucault, Genealogy, Counter-History,” Theory & Event 23, no. 1 (January 2020): 85–119.
  109. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 170.
  110. See, for instance, Guattari’s discussion of Anti-Oedipus in Deleuze, Negotiations, 15.
  111. This is the title of the first section of Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis.
  112. Rancière, The Method of Equality, 16–17, translation slightly modified.
  113. Gabriel Rockhill, “Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek,” CounterPunch, January 2, 2023.
  114. See Clouscard, Néo-fascisme et idéologue du désir, 102.
  115. See Ossian Gani and Fabien Trémeau, Tout est permis mais rien n’est possible (2011),
  116. “The celebration of difference,” writes Peter Starr, “stood athwart the political, eschewing politics proper while claiming real political effects, in accordance with an extension of the political.” Peter Starr, Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May ’68 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 7.
  117. Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 153.
  118. Barthes, The Rustle of Language, 153–54.
  119. Barthes, The Rustle of Language, 154.
  120. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 72. Grant Kester has provided a critique of this position, linking it to the myth of the autonomy of aesthetics, in The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 19–65.
  121. “Post-structuralism,” according to Terry Eagleton, “was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968. Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was likely to beat you over the head for doing so. The student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse. Its enemies…became coherent belief-systems of any kind—in particular all forms of political theory and organization which sought to analyze, and act upon, the structures of society as a whole.” Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 142.
  122. Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits I: 1954–1975 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2001), 844.
  123. Foucault, Dits et écrits I, 848.
  124. Roudinesco claims that Lacan’s assertion was true because students like her went into the streets to demand that they “be taught about the work of Jakobson, Barthes, and the Russian formalists.” Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 341. Although this curious form of activism may be true in her case, a very large number of commentators and participants have insisted on the disconnect between the structuralists and the students. For instance, Lefebvre wrote: “In the lead-up to May 1968, the avant-garde of the students rejected the dogmatic arrogance of the structuralist tendency, which for its part was disproving, with scientific arguments to back them up, the spontaneity of the contestatory movement.” Henri Lefebvre, L’Idéologie structuraliste (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1971), 9.
  125. Dosse, La saga des intellectuels français, 42.
  126. Dosse, Paul Ricœur: Les Sens d’une vie (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 1997), 485.
  127. Dosse, Paul Ricœur, 484. See also Maurice Rajsfus, Mai 68: Sous les paves, la répression (mai 1968–mars 1974) (Paris: le cherche midi éditeur, 1998), 116.
  128. Dosse, Paul Ricœur, 484.
  129. Dosse, Paul Ricœur, 483.
  130. Lescourret, Pierre Bourdieu, 237. See also David Drake, Intellectuals and Politics in Post-War France (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 133.
  131. See Grémion, “Écrivains et intellectuels à Paris,” 82, and Richard Johnson, The French Communist Party versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May–June 1968 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 84.
  132. Richard Johnson, The French Communist Party versus the Students, 84. On Lévi-Strauss’s campaign, which included a letter written to Aron, see Loyer, Lévi-Strauss, 470–71.
  133. Bourdieu, Sketch for a Self-Analysis, 28.
  134. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “What Is the ‘Postmodern’ Agenda?” in In Defense of History, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 14.
  135. William Klein’s 1978 film, Grands Soirs & petits matins, provides an intimate portrait of the radical students involved in ’68, and it is helpful to remember that these were the students who were then being fed the work of Derrida, Lacan et alia as somehow being truly radical.
  136. Rajsfus, Mai 68, 206. Marxists like Ernest Mandel, Tariq Ali, and Eldridge Cleaver were banned from France (see Rajsfus, Mai 68, 188, 191). According to Krivine, Mandel was actively involved with the JCR in struggles in the Latin Quarter prior to his expulsion. See Chris den Hond’s film Ernest Mandel: A Life for the Revolution (2005),
  137. Rajsfus, Mai 68, 140, 147, 240.
  138. Marxist teachers and professors, including Maria-Antonietta Macciochi and Judith Miller, lost their academic positions. See Rajsfus, Mai 68, 117, 191. One teacher was sentenced to two months in prison for simply yelling “CRS:SS” at a protest, suggesting that the French riot police (CRS) are equivalent to the German SS. See Rajsfus, Mai 68, 71.
  139. “From the early 1980s onward,” writes Stathis Kouvelakis, “a real wall was erected in the French university and in connected arenas—publishing, ‘established’ journals, media access—which excluded from the field of legitimate discussion and research subjects any work on Marx and Marxism, or based on these latter.… Marxism underwent an extremely methodological purge which combined a powerful element of what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’ with an implicit but very effective exclusion from access to any academic position.” Stathis Kouvelakis, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx (London: Verso, 2018), 354.
2023, Volume 75, Number 02 (June 2023)
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