Review: Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération
(Paris: Editions du Seuil). Vol. 1: Les Années de reve, 1987. Vol. 2: Les Années de poudre 1988
Loren Goldner

At the approach of the 20th anniversary of the longest wildcat general strike in history, the press, publishers, and the media in France have geared up for the ultimate in “la mode retro.” In this endeavor, they are hardly alone. The May-June “events” in France were only the loudest explosion in the annus mirabilis of 1968, and signs of similar (largely self-satisfied) ‘stock-taking, asking the proverbial “where are they now?” about the “revolutionaries without revolution” of 1968, are surfacing in all countries touched by the agitation of that year. Few major countries, indeed, were not. One recent work clearly written with the 20-year retrospective in mind, hardly without its problems (1), situates 1968 in the noble lineage of the world revolutionary waves of 1789, 1848, and 1917-1918, and rightly underscores the worldwide conjuncture unifying the upsurges that seriously shook France, Germany, the U.S., Poland, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam, and China, to mention only the most striking cases. While we might ultimately disagree with the remark of one wag who suggested, paraphrasing Chateaubriand, that “anyone who was not conscious in 1968 does not know what consciousness is,” it is certainly the case that this year, more than most before or since in the post-World War II era, was of undisputable world-historical importance. In 1988, we can hardly give the definitive interpretation of events still so close to us. A world which awoke in the mid-1960s to a global social, economic, and cultural crisis which, more than 20 years later, shows few signs of abatement, and still less of resolution, can only recognize in the May-June general strike in France in 1968 one fundamental early skirmish.

Into the debate over. a provisional, working answer to the, question of the meaning of May and of the 1960s generally, the Frenchmen Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, co-authors of no less than seven jointly-written books, have cast a massive, two-volume journalistic transposition of a “roman-fleuve” entitled Génération.

The first volume, Les années de rêve, covers the period from 1956 to the autumn “rentrée” of 1968; the second, Lee années de poudre, deals with “l’après-mai” up to roughly 1975, with ample forward cuts to the contemporary views of the participants recorded in the mid-1980s. The rather unique perspective achieved by the book comes from its use of marathon interviews with more than forty individuals whose trajectories are traced from the crisis of the world communist movement following the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the Polish October, and the Hungarian revolution, to their somewhat jaded “reinsertion” into middle-class life in the France of Mitterrand and the “yuppie socialism” that came to power in 1981. Clearly, as different individuals were more at the center of events in some periods than in others, the cast of characters drifts in and out of the narrative.

The authors’ choice of main figures is eminently debatable, to say the least. My initial reaction, 100 pages into the first volume, was to dismiss the book as a piece of self-indulgent gossip based on a network of the authors’ friends, a number of them “stars” of a movement which made its mark, among other things, with a fundamental critique of stardom. But once one accepts the book for what it is and refrains from criticizing it for not being something else, it works. Given the epic and epochal character of the world history of the two decades under consideration, it would be difficult to write an entirely boring book about them, and whatever else one might say about it, Génération, particularly for anyone who lived through a fair swath of the events that form its backdrop or its focus, is far from boring. From Khrushchev’s speech and Budapest, by way of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, the black movement in the U.S., the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, to their culmination in the worldwide student and working-class unrest of 1968 as a whole, the upward curve of ferment and struggle, despite setbacks, seemed to move from strength to strength. The years from 1956 to 1968, for “those who were 20 years old” in the latter year, were poor preparation, indeed, for the plunge into the ebb and disarray that followed, despite appearances to the contrary, up to and including the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975. By following some forty-odd figures, who were not negligible in the French phase of this history through their ups and downs, Hamon and Rotman attempt, in effect, a large-scale collective biography of a certain segments of the generation baptized in 1968, and largely pull it off, lending credence to their stated goal of showing the “generational effect” in concrete individual lives.

It is important to delineate what Génération does not attempt to do, in order to better assess its merits in what it does attempt. The book is not a history of French gauchisme from 1956 to 1975; it is not a socio-psychological portrait of a generation with claims to thoroughness; it is not an oral “history from the bottom up”. It largely saves for the end any explicit claim to “explaining” the trajectories of its main actors (though we shall later return to some of the implicit analysis it offers),

Génération, for all the other persons and currents which move across its pages, basically is the story of a group of young French political militants, the majority of them mostly middle-class, who followed a path from the youth groups of the PCF on the eve o the 1960s through the Union des Etudiants Communistes (UEC), the expulsion of UEC dissidents in 1965, the encounter with Louis Aithusser at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the mirage of the “Red Orient” of 1967, the formation of Marxist-Leninist groupuscules, 1968, and finally, the rise — and, more importantly, the dissolution — of the Gauche Prolétarienne and its mouvance from 1969 into the early 1970s. Some of the better-known figures in this drama are Alain Geismar (who came out of the PSU), Serge July (today editor of Liberation) Benny Levy, and Robert Linhart. Offered in counterpoint is the similar but ultimately divergent trajectory of Alain Krivine, the only major individual under study who still today, considers himself a revolutionary militant, from his slow evolution from the cream of PCF youth activists of the late 1950’s into Trotskyism and the Ligue connuuniste, the largest and numerically most influential gauchiste formation after 1968.

In fact, as the authors themselves make clear, these figures were not so much a generation of 1968 as one of the early 1960s. It was their clash with the PCF over the latter’s tepid opposition to the Algerian War which finally set most of them on the path to a definitive break that came in 1965. This pattern was not limited to France. However surreal 1968 may have looked in contrast to 1962, in France as in Germany, Italy, and the U.S., the evolution of a small number. of individuals from under the shadow of traditional Stalinist and Social Democratic parties to something like a “New Left” perspective everywhere, modestly prepared the terrain for what followed. But, in the case of Hamon and Rotman, this truth immediately poses a rather sticky question, linked to the fundamental flaw of the book: namely, why focus so exclusively on these people? If Regis Debray made one lucid political observation in the course of his erratic evolution, it was his remark, in the mid-1980s, that of all the possible forerunners of the French May, only the Situationist Internationale can be genuinely cited as a serious anticipation of the movement. The historian Richard Gombin observed the same thing long ago in his book Les Origines du gauchisme.

As Hamon and Rotman themselves show, many of their protagonists, in May 1968, were members. of a Marxist-Leninist sect, the Union de la Jeunesse Communiste (rn-1) which in the crucial first two weeks opposed the May movement as petty-bourgeois adventurism and which analyzed the famous Night Of the Barricades (May 10-11) as a Gaullist provocation aimed at setting the French working class up for massive repression. This stance, truly “contre le courant” of events, culminated in the nervous breakdown of Robert Linhart, one of Aithusser’s most brilliant students and lider maximo of the UJC (m-l), that same night. Only after the working class, seeing the Gaullist state stumble, launched the movement of factory occupations after May 16, did the UJC (m-l) and its periphery finally throw itself into the fray. Then, regrouped in the Gauche Prolétarienne (GP), founded in 1969, the same core of people began to publish their “torchon,” La cause du peuple (to whose defense Sartre came in the spring of 1970).

Hamon and Rotman use the evolution of the Gauche Prolétarienne as the ne plus ultra of the “logic” of gauchisme, and there is in itself nothing wrong with this. Krivine, Henri Weber, and the Ligue Communiste were more “moderate,” more in touch with reality, and far more numerous. But the GP briefly, ephemerally, by its caricatural workerism, its revival of the all but forgotten liturgy of Third Period “ultra-leftism,” managed on occasion to connect with a youthful (sometimes immigrant) working-class base in the factories of the banlieue which was never reached by the Ligue. This kind of “direct action” Maoism, whatever it ultimately had to do with Mao Tse-tung, also had its counterparts in the “New Left” of most countries. What momentarily mobilized the workers reached by the GP’s campaigns were its brash interventions in tense industrial situations such as Renault-Billancourt, the Dunkirk shipyards, or the coal mines of the Nord, where a killing pace of work or very real industrial accidents created situations in which the GP’s “make the bosses pay!”-type agitation resonated more favorably than the limp or non-existent opposition of the dominant unions, the CGT and the CFDT. But everything else smacked of a collective narcissistic frenzy of a group of people almost literally maddened by ideology: the self-sacrificial militantism demanded of GP members, summarized in the unforgettable slogan “Serve the People,” a monastic discipline no genuine proletarian could ever impose upon him/herself, the endless rounds of meetings, leaflet distributions, rallies and confrontations, and finally the surreal analysis of France as an “occupied country” on the brink of fascism, which cast the GP in the role of a “new people’s resistance.” In France, as elsewhere, the fascination of

“1′ établissement,” of intellectuals and ex-students giving up every comfort and taking (often menial) factory jobs for agitational purposes, attracted thousands of 1968 veterans, a few of whom actually stayed the course (not always, past a certain point, voluntarily) but most of whom found the real, living proletariat quite different from the wooden class heroes and martyrs portrayed in La cause du peuple and other gauchiste newspapers. For Hamon and Rotman, even as they show the GP to be “délirante,” caught in the logic of a self-consuming frenzy over the four years of its existence, and definitely, as its ex-members later freely admit and even insist (to justify better their embrace of liberalism), totalitarian in its inner life, the GP is nevertheless allowed to stand as the penultimate trajectory of the whole generation for whom everything changed in May 1968. In this reviewer’s understanding, Marxism, socialist revolution, and the real possibility of a radical supersession of the capitalist mode of production are historically questions of the international working class as a whole, and not of a delirious passage through the ideological space-time of a self-appointed vanguard of ex-“normaliens” and refugees from the “hypokhâgne.” The ultimate meaning and fate of Marxism, socialism, and the working class are eminently debatable subjects, hardly to be approached here. But Hamon and Rotman, even after showing that their main protagonists totally misread the onset of the most remarkable historical experience of the past four decades of French history, share with current fashion in France the idea that the self-imposed totalitarian experience (no italics necessary — it was totalitarian) of the Maoist groupuscules from 1968 to 1973 somehow puts Marxism as a whole on trial, and their book ultimately meanders to this “lesson.” This is a point to which we shall return.

Nonetheless, to present the thousand threads of the tapestry of Génération as merely, or even principally, a “history” of the core members of the Gauche Prolétarienne would be a grave injustice to a book which, through anecdote, language, and the very eclecticism of its “journalisme fleuve” style, manages to recreate passably the palpable “feel” of an era as no historian, 50 years from now, will be able to do. (This reviewer’s argument with Hamon and Rotman. is simply that they allow that particular thread to organize, and ultimately provide the lessons for, almost everything else.) There is the Polish Jewish immigrant family background of a surprising number of the protagonists. There is the haunted life of Pierre Goldman, erratic, brilliant UEC militant, failed Latin American guerrillero, later petty thief and holdup artist, and finally the victim of a mysterious murder on a Paris street in 1979. There are a long series of Latin Quarter street battles with the thugs of the extreme-right groups, and the story of the “porteurs de valises” or “suitcase carriers” who risked jail and OAS violence to aid the FLN rebels during the Algerian War. There is the story of the failed “Italian” minority inside the PCF which wanted to break the party away from Stalinism along the lines followed by the PCI, the seduction of the Algerian, Cuban, and Chinese revolutions, and of the many personal pilgrimages to these countries undertaken from the early 1960s onward which nourished the rising Third Worldism so central to the gauchiste imagination. Hamon and Rotman touch on the beginnings of rock and the appearance of a self-conscious “youth culture” and the films of the “new wave” which, like those of James Dean in the U.S., fed a sense of nameless dissatisfaction and revolt that could not be reduced to the “political.” Also discussed is the impact of the imprisonment of Regis Debray and of the murder of Che Guevara by counter-insurgents in Bolivia in 1967, and the whole mystique of the Latin American guerrilla which grew up around them.

Some 200 pages of Volume I are devoted to a close account of the events leading up to, and finally culminating in, the wildcat general strike and the cultural revolution of May. Retelling a story well known in outline, Hamon and Rotman do manage to

capture the wild moments of the street fighting in the Latin Quarter, which began with the arrest of some militants in disarray at a demoralized demonstration in the Sorbonne courtyard on May 3, and which by the May 10-11 “night of the barricades” had turned tens of thousands of “apolitical” students, “people no one had ever seen before” as the veterans put it, into self-described revolutionaries. The authors are less strong in giving a concrete sense of the tidal wave of strikes which closed down the country after May 16, and deal in a few paragraphs with the unforgettable scene of CGT leader Georges Séguy being booed down by the workers of Renault-Billancourt when, on May 27, he tried to sell them the so-called Grenelle agreement. For Hamon and Rotman, quite explicitly, almost everything of importance happened in the Latin Quarter. In the overall account of the spring of 1968, the Situationists and the “handful of Enrages,” who were anything but ascetic Marxist-Leninist militants of the “révolution triste,” are given their due. They were, as was said before, far closer than anyone else in their pre-1968 evolution to the real content of the movement at its peak.

Volume 2, Les années de poudre, traces out the new period into the mid-1970s. Vividly present are the agitation in the lycées and the profound mutation of the self-awareness of both students and teachers in an atmosphere of the most severe trial of the old authoritarian methods. There is the wave of police repression unleashed by Pompidou’s Minister of the Interior, Marcellin, the symbol of the brutality occasionally unleashed on even moderate “fauteurs de troubles,” such as the journalist Alain Jaubert, beaten to within an inch of his life by the CRS in a paddy wagon in 1971; the GP’s relationship with Sartre, who became editor of La Cause du peuple in 1970 to save it from suppression by the state; the appearance of feminism, which, in France as elsewhere, contributed greatly to the deflation of the aura of classical political vanguardism, and also to the legalization of abortion; the murder of the Maoist working-class militant Pierre Auvernay by a company thug at Billancourt in 1972, which brought the GP hard up against the choices of escalation its trajectory offered; the impact of the LIP strike in 1973, where the Maoists of the GP first seriously encountered the Catholic militants of the CFDT, whose experiment in “self-management” prompted Benny Levy and others to reconsider the very raison d’être of the GP. The period of the “après-mail’ wanes after the dissolution of the Ligue Communiste in June 1973, following the latter’s attack on a fascist rally and the police in the Latin Quarter. The overthrow of the Allende government, the Yom Kippur War, and the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the fall of 1973 seem to mark the end of an era. The last hurrah of Western European gauchisme comes in the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975.

In their concluding “explication de texte,” Hamon and Rotman present their interpretation of the evolution they have depicted. Here, many of the implicit choices alluded to above become more explicit. For them, French gauchisme lived on its ability to be a condensed expression of problems that all of French society was living through, ultimately under the impact of the rapid social and economic evolution of the Fifth Republic. They see the trajectory followed by the movement after 1968 as the transplanting of an archaic, “classical Marxist” discourse onto problems of a society breaking out of archaism. The politically unformed mass of students which exploded in the Latin Quarter of May cast about for a coherent outlook, and many found the various ideological options of the generation of the early 1960s. For Hamon and Rotman, French gauchisme grew out of that meeting. This in itself seems quite plausible. But, in the authors’ view, the “real” problems were the problems of what, in another language, would be called the problems of the “new social movements”: the crisis of the schools, of the family, of the position of women, of the social realities of the workplace, and of everyday life. The experience of May and the ideologies inherited from groupuscules like the GP and the Ligue made a total rupture — a revolution — seem like the sine qua non for any real change in these areas. But, for Hamon and Rotman, this illusion ran onto the rocks, first with the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag” and then with (first mentioned on the last page of Volume 2!) the world economic crisis. The “Gulag” cured “les maos” of the last remnants of a totalitarianism which years in the hothouse environment of groups like the GP had already greatly dissipated. The world economic crisis somehow taught everyone that Marxism (in a logic we are hard pressed to follow) was bankrupt. “The ex-gauchistes,” write the authors, “realized, a bit late but before the socialist leaders, the truth of what the thinkers of the “second left,” the autodidacts of the CFDT, had been saying for a long time, namely that the room for maneuver of political leaders is small, and that only an adequate, rigorous appreciation of these limits renders real changes possible. What is essential is not played out at the hotel Matignon but precisely in the workplace, in everyday life and in education” (Vol. 2, p. 668).

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem of the whole book, and more precisely of an 8-page “message” tacked onto a 1350-page text. The authors’ entrapment in the “universe” of the hothouse of the Latin Quarter, and of the French intelligentsia generally, serves them poorly, although it often gave them access to and insight into much fascinating material. The authors recognized that May 1968 and its aftermath sounded the death knell for the PCF. One real merit of the book, at least for the foreign reader, is its demonstration of how completely the PCF, into the early 1970s, shaped the agenda of anyone contemplating any sort of leftist political strategy in France. The origins of the virtual entirety of the core cadre of the gauchiste groups in the communist youth movements testifies to this. But the Gallocentric perspective of the authors allows them to make too quickly the step made by so many French intellectuals since the mid-1970s, summed up in the equation Marxism = PCF = totalitarianism. The impact of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in France was unique in the Western world. Why did truths about the Soviet Union that were banalities in Germany, Britain, or the U.S. make such an impact in France in 1974, when they had been revealed in their essence, even there, 25 years earlier by leftist intellectuals such as Camus, Lefort, and Rousset? Only in a country so colonized by Jacobin statism and centralism, which PCF, Soviet, and later Third World Stalinism echoed and amplified, could such a delay be possible. What Solzhenitsyn tapped in Glucksmann, Levy, July, and others was only the dead end of their own frenetic statism, expressed most directly in their hallucination of a “Red Orient,” which the French political hothouse had always allowed them to equate with Marxism. It is certainly true that if “Marxism” means the internal life of the Gauche Prolétarienne, the Gulag, Cambodia, and the Vietnamese boat people, then the liberalism of Giscard and the market socialism of Mitterrand and Fabius do look downright attractive.

This brings us to the final, related point, the breathtaking assertion on the last page of Volume 2 that the “Crisis,” namely the world economic crisis, made the gauchistes realize that a “break” with capitalism was impossible. One has to wonder about a book dealing with the period from 1956 to the mid-1970s which only mentions the world economic crisis once, and then to explain the collapse of ..'”Marxism”. The dollar crisis of March 1968, in which the world moved (and not for the last time) to the edge of a deflationary collapse of the international financial system, is only the most striking example of how the events of these decades were cadenced by the growing crisis that finally erupted into general view in 1973. That the Western left everywhere, in those years, could have been so totally oblivious to these developments, so trapped in the myth of the “affluent society,” is surely one reason for its collapse in the face of the neo-liberal wave that started in the mid-1970s. On this point one finds not a word in Hamon and Rotman. To them, the “world economic crisis” appears on the horizon like one more distant event, comparable to the mirage of the Cuban or Chinese Revolutions. This allows them to conclude with now-humdrum pieties about concrete, pragmatic change, far from the fetishism of politics and the state, but well proscribed within the “narrow room for maneuver” left by crisis, austerity, and economic decline — change that never poses the “totalitarian” question of a radical political and social rupture. One hears in this hastily drawn conclusion the sigh of resignation of the short-lived “Euro-socialist renaissance” of the early 1980s, heralded by the appearance of the Social Democratic austerity regimes of Mitterrand, Gonzales, and Papandreou. Austerity, perhaps, but by all means brighten up daily life with some pink carnations, and if any marginalized groups who did not happen to be at the rue d’Ulm or in hypokhâgne in 1968, and who could not as a result opt for upward social recycling in the late 1970s, protest too loudly, remind them of society’s close brush with the totalitarian temptation

Whether talking of civil war in 1968 or of civil society in 1988, these people have never stopped articulating the fashions of the civil service social stratum which, under the leadership of V.I. Lenin or, faute de mieux Jack Lang, was always their ultimate telos.

This is not to belittle very real problems which the international left confronts today, most sharply posed by the neoliberal critique of statism, problems to which there are no easy answers. But in an advanced, capitalist world which just saw’ the biggest stock market crash since 1929, in which 10% rates of unemployment have long become socially and politically acceptable, in which important sections of left intellectuals have recoiled from their previous, antiworking-class statism and with a loud “inea culpa” have embraced an equally anti-working-class “market socialism” whose harsh edges rarely affect them directly, lessons drawn from the fortunes of the little universe of the Parisian Latin Quarter, however interesting as collective biography, are just not enough.


1. George Katsciaficis, The Imagination of the New Left (Boston: South End, 1987).