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Maoist Internationalist Movement

The Pitfalls of French Anarchism

The Revolt of May 1968

by MCB52

In the late 1960s, students from imperialist countries around the world demonstrated their internationalism principally through their protest of the imperialist genocide in Vietnam. MIM has written about the Amerikan story of these movements, in articles about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Weatherman, an underground splinter group from SDS. Here we examine the student movement in France, which was, like so many other First World political movements, heavily influenced and led by anarchism.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a student leader and anarchist theorist in the 1968 French student-worker uprising, involving tens of thousands of students and the "largest general strike in French history"(1). Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative is Cohn-Bendit's treatise on the French student movement. By reviewing this book, written weeks after the events of May, MIM forms a criticism of his anarchist analysis and the movement it helped guide. We also discuss age as the principal contradiction within imperialist countries and the role of students in advanced capitalist societies.

Background of the struggle

The nearly two weeks of street fighting in May between university and high school students and workers on one hand and the French riot police on the other was, as most accounts of the story claim, spontaneous and without centralized leadership. But radicalism among students had been building for months before the struggle reached beyond the university walls or to the point of armed confrontation.

Cohn-Bendit puts the student revolt in France in an international context, pointing to similar struggles in Berkeley and Berlin. Particularly, he draws on the experience of the German student union SDS (Sozialistischer Deutcher Studentbund), praising it for rallying for university reform. According to Cohn-Bendit, the French students were disillusioned with their own reformist union, the National Union of French Students (UNEF), and also by the left alternatives who were "devoting all [their] energies to making a scientific, Marxist analyses of the situation, which, despite their learned character, did little to mobilize the students for their own struggle."(2)

The first student actions of that year were in February, and they revolved around repealing university restrictions on dormitory access. Militants at the Nanterre campus of the national university saw it as their responsibility to "liberate the prisoners." "This culminated in male students forcibly entering the women's hostels."(3) So while anarchists, including Cohn-Bendit, claim that their movements have no leaders, this story reveals that the French student movement was actually led by men. Throughout Obsolete Communism, Cohn-Bendit does not address the role of women in the student struggle, or gender at all.

At Cohn-Bendit's own campus, Nanterre, huge student strikes (of some 10-12,000 students) were aimed at "improving working conditions," (i.e. reducing overcrowding). In January 1968, Cohn-Bendit had first basked in the spotlight, calling the Minister for Youth a "Hitler youth." When the authorities started extradition proceedings against Cohn-Bendit (a German citizen) and the university started expulsion procedures, students demonstrated in protest.(4) The Dean called in the riot police, whom the students forced off campus. With this small victory, "the students had felt the iron fist under the glove of the liberal university."(5)

The students' protest grew with the escalation of the war in Vietnam, which angered students "not only because it represents an attempt by Americans to dictate to the rest of the world, but also because 'socialist' bureaucracies are prepared to stand by and let it happen."(6) French students, according to Cohn-Bendit, took "direct action against the representatives of U.S. imperialism in France."(7) Not wanting to alienate the essentially patriotic French labor aristocracy, he neglects to mention that France had started Western involvement in the war and that its own capitalist enterprises would have been as appropriate bomb targets as Amerikan Express offices.(8)

The role of students

According to Cohn-Bendit, while the vast majority of French students came from bourgeois families, the need for more trained workers had allowed some working-class and petit-bourgeois students into the university system and created a heterogeneity that called into question the "objectivity" of bourgeois sociology. True objectivity, he argued, would reveal the purpose of training a class for 'disinterested' research of a society they control. For example, according to Cohn-Bendit, sociology students were allowed to study either poverty or racism but not the two together.

Despite their heterogeneity, then, student's common social role provided the basis for their demonstration in support of the Algerian revolutionary war of independence from France in the late 1950s, and also for the demonstrations in 1968.

The French working class was conspicuously absent in the Algerian demonstrations. Like other revisionists who cannot see the role of imperialism in creating labor aristocracies, Cohn-Bendit blames the Communists for that absence: "The absence of organized protest outside the universities can be laid squarely at the door of the Communist Party -- it was both unwilling and unable to organize effective opposition to the war and support the Algerian revolutionaries."(9)

Cohn-Bendit blames the Communist Party for all political shortcomings of the French workers, as though the party had power to forcibly prevent the workers from having their own demonstrations. That said, MIM does not uphold the French Communist Party (PCF). The group claiming a Maoist line in France, the Union of Communist Youth-Marxist Leninist (UJC-ml), called the PCF the "PCF(R)," with the "R" standing for revisionist.(10) Heeding the economism of the workers, the PCF was indeed grossly non-committal about opposing imperialism in Algeria. But a revisionist party representing imperialist country workers is neither the source nor the obstacle of anti-imperialist action. French workers had a material interest in maintaining French imperialism, and the PCF supported this material interest.

But in 1968, young workers, "most of whom were not members of the trade unions, who proved the most militant and tenacious." With this in mind, Cohn-Bendit came close to saying that the principal contradiction within French society at the time was age. "Modern youth is not so much envious of, as disgusted with, the dead empty lives of their parents. This feeling began among bourgeois children and has now spread through all levels of society."(11)

Cohn-Bendit attributes the radicalism among the younger workers to their "a bellyful of low wages"(12) and their "direct economic oppression and misery."(13) But the young workers shared with the young students the potential of embracing the imperialist state fully and fully rewarding from it. Thus, both groups were betraying their own material interests when they protested the state, and it was their youth that united them.

Students, of course, have more personal freedom to participate in political action than do their worker counterparts. In Cohn-Bendit's sexist language: "He rarely has a wife and children to feed. He can, if he chooses, take extreme political positions without any personal danger."(14) And so it is logical that student revolt would begin first and labor-aristocracy workers (with more to lose in the short-term) would join the movement only later, after some of its demonstrated successes.

Sparks of the movement

The March 22 Movement was the real beginning of the events of May. Following the arrest of six National Vietnam Committee militants, about 150 students at Nanterre who had gathered spontaneously decided to take over the administration building. The students decried the "black lists" of radical students that university and police authorities kept and said that the time for peaceful protest was over. They announced that "anti-imperialist debates" would be held on March 29.

The March 22 Movement set aside May 2-3 for teach-ins on imperialism, but instead the radicals built up defenses against the rumored raid by the right wing student group, Occident, on the campus. The dean ordered that Nanterre be closed and that seven of the movement's members, along with one prominent Trotskyist, appear before a university disciplinary board at the Sorbonne campus in Paris.(15)

University authorities thought that this action would fatally cripple the movement, because at this time the radicals were still a minority. But supporters of the March 22 Movement converged on the Sorbonne in solidarity with the leaders, joined by hundreds more. The rector called in the police, who, with orders to clear the courtyard, filed hundreds of students into police vans.

Cohn-Bendit praises the spontaneous crowd that hurled insults and rocks at the vans with cries of "free our comrades!" He points to the barricades that they set up as proof that the masses do not need a vanguard but are perfectly able to engage in the fighting themselves. The well-publicized brutality of the police did indeed win public sympathy for the students, especially in Paris. This support held up for the next couple of weeks, marked by street-fighting and barricades. The rioting students had three main demands: the release of incarcerated demonstrators, police withdrawal from the university, and the re-opening of the university.

Cohn-Bendit appropriates some revolutionary rhetoric in his glorification of the student struggle. Like Mao, Cohn-Bendit explains that people learn the theory of revolution by waging revolution. Unlike Mao, and any other successful revolutionary, Cohn-Bendit disregards the importance of a party in leading both practice and theory. As for the faltering of radicalism among the students, Cohn-Bendit retreats into anarchist idealism:

"There were some 35,000 demonstrators present in the Champs Elyses alone and -- mirable dictu [a religious phrase meaning 'it is marvelous to relate'] -- they managed without any leaders at all.(16) Unfortunately, the bureaucratic officials of the UNEF, that moribund Student Union, who had been frustrated in their earlier attempts to take over the movement, now called in the help of trade union bureaucrats who, at the Halles aux vins and in the demonstrations that followed, were able to divert the movement from its original aim: the recapture of the Sorbonne … [A]ll hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations must necessarily pervert all activities in which they participate to their own ends."(17)

The trade unions and the mainstream student union opposed radicalism, not because they were bureaucratic, but rather because they supported the interests of their constituencies. Anarchists speak of "bureaucracy" as if it was an ideology or political line unto itself, but in fact bureaucracy is merely the form, not the substance of any movement. When anarchism fails, that failure cannot be blamed on "form," but is the result of anarchism itself.

When the head of the Sorbonne announced it would be reopened under police protection, the students organized a "teach-out." Behind barricades, they experimented with putting direct democracy into practice. Some professors joined the students and decried police repression as the teachers' union fused with the student strike committee. In their closest approximation of independent power, the students organized a "summer university" which would have the task of developing new teaching methods, running political seminars, and organizing art exhibitions.

The workers join the revolt

On May 13, the trade unions called a 24-hour general strike. For Cohn-Bendit, this action represented the attempt of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the Communist-led trade union, to seize control of the student movement. This "leader" was worried that his "leaderless" movement would fall prey to a more established one.

Professionals joined the strike, as well as cinematographers and others. Cohn-Bendit essentially ignores them because he misidentifies the heart of the contradiction, which was not about wages but about ideology. It was not about the contradiction between the capitalists and the workers but about the contradiction between the youth and their more established elders.

Cohn-Bendit notes that the struggle is not just about redistributing wealth, but he does not have the materialist tools to explain this. He says "liberals, Stalinist bureaucrats, and reformists alike, all reduce the evils of capitalism to economic injustice. And when they extend their criticism of capitalism to other fields, they simply imply that everything would be solved by a fairer distribution of wealth."(18)

Besides this incorrect assessment of Stalinism, there are no references anywhere in Obsolete Communism to the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that was underway at the time of this unrest. The Cultural Revolution was waged precisely because the simple redistribution of wealth is not the end of the struggle.

The students march on

On May 22, in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to quiet things down, the government granted amnesty to arrested students. The CGT, for its part, was more than ready to slow the movement and get some big concessions while it could. It organized two marches in different sections of Paris that were meant to be as peaceful as possible so as not to provoke the police. The March 22 Movement wanted to pour out of the Latin Quarter (the students home turf) and fly the banner of revolution all over Paris. Maoists wanted to head for the working-class suburbs and get the masses there involved. Instead the different groups appealed for a mass assembly at the Gare de Lyons. The slogans included, "No to negotiations which only prop up capitalism!" "Enough referendums, no more circuses!"(19)

Two hundred thousand workers participated in the CGT demonstrations. The March 22 Movement and the action committees started with far fewer but grew through the day. Tens of thousands marched on the Stock Exchange, captured it, and set it on fire. Cohn-Bendit wrote: "Paris was in the hands of the demonstrators, the Revolution had started in earnest! Everyone felt it and wanted to go on. But then the political boys stepped in …"(20)

Cohn-Bendit blames the Trotskyists for turning the students back toward the Latin Quarter, even though it was the one place that was most heavily occupied by the police. And "it was the UNEF and PSU who stopped us from taking the [less well-guarded] Ministry of Finance…"(21) And so on. Cohn-Bendit takes no responsibility for the chaos of a student movement with no unified line.

The decline of the movement

Cohn-Bendit holds that if, on May 25, the people of Paris had woken up to occupied Ministries, then the government would have toppled. "It has been said, and rightly so, that for the first time in history a revolution could have been made without recourse to arms."(22) This is pure idealism. If one Trotskyist student had been able to misguide tens of thousands of students and destroy their revolution in one move, how would the new society after Gaullism prevent others who wanted to misguide the revolution?

That night alone turned Cohn-Bendit away from revolution. "When 24 May drew to a close, revolution was still in the cards -- nothing seemed settled either way. But by the 25th, our failure to take the Ministries enabled the state and the trade union bureaucrats to rally from the blows they had been dealt the night before."(23)

The CGT negotiated what became known as the "Grenelle agreement," a package of remarkable reformist gains: increase of the minimum wage by one-third, general wage increases of 7% immediately and an additional 3% in October, reduction of the work week, increased family allowances, payment for half the time lost in the strike. These were the most impressive gains made by union negotiating in 30 years.(24) And of course the Third World proletariat would continue to pay the price.

The PCF went back to doing what it had been trying to do for years: join the various social-democrats as a "respectable" party and form a social-democrat coalition to compete with Gaullism on bourgeois democratic terms. It called for ending the strikes, accepting the Grenelle agreements, and the election of a "popular government." Francois Mitterand was the chosen candidate for the new "Left" coalition.

Students "help" the workers fight on

The events of May did not die overnight. Some strikers held out and the March 22 Movement organized "Support and Solidarity" committees that brought supplies to the striking workers and helped communication among the islands of strikes. But the March 22 Movement was understaffed. Its last big move was to reinforce the occupying strikers at the Renault plant in Flins, which had been taken over by the police. This particular factory had only a small union membership and a foreign majority, so the CGT did not hold much sway there.

Twelve hundred students began stopping cars of workers on their way to work to tell them that returning was a betrayal. (Cohn-Bendit does not explain why workers needed students to tell them!)

Three days of battle ensued between the students and workers and the CRS, (the National Security Guards, famous all over Europe for their brutality), against the advice of the anti-provocation CGT, which cautioned:

"Rigorously oppose every attempt to mislead the workers' movement. While negotiations are proceeding in the metal industry, and while consultations prior to a return of work continue in various other branches, dangerous attempts at provocation are being made. These take the form of questioning our undoubted achievements and misleading the workers into adventurist escapades."(25)

Cohn-Bendit never accepts that reformism was in the interests of the workers, and so he reads the CGT statements as being opposed to the workers' interests. In fact, the CGT in repeatedly calling the workers to reason, was trying to gain for them what the Labour Party had gained for the labor aristocracy in England: solid junior partnership with the bourgeoisie.

During the fighting, one student who was a Maoist and a member of the UJC-ml, died after being chased by the police. Cohn-Bendit claims his death as his movement's own, not mentioning that the student was a Maoist.(26) Maoists, endeavoring always to "serve the people," made great efforts to serve the group they misidentified as the proletariat. While MIM disagrees fundamentally with the UJC-ml's pandering to the labor aristocracy, it also calls the anarchists to task for not recognizing the contributions of Maoists.

The meaning of revolution

When Cohn-Bendit speaks of "[t]he real meaning of revolution [being] not a change in management, but a change in man,"(27) he fails to recognize that the change in management must precede as well as reflect the change in man. Had he examined the process in China, he would have seen that process as dialectical, that the proletarian party cannot change the social relations of the society without state power. An anarchist and an idealist, Cohn-Bendit wants no part of state power until social relations have already been transformed. This has never happened.

"This change must take place in our lifetime and not for our children's sake, for the revolution must be born out of joy and not of sacrifice."(28) But revolution is about both joy and sacrifice, as those who have waged it would tell Cohn-Bendit.

In the end, the problem of the French left was not, as Cohn-Bendit argues, that the vanguardism and scientific thinking are incorrect. Its problem was its failure to recognize the material conditions that imperialism brought to the working class that the leftists were trying to serve.

The Maoist UJC-ml, in its newspaper "Servir le Peuple," correctly upheld Stalin, Mao, and supported the National Liberation Front in Algeria and other struggles. But its misunderstanding of First World workers led it to struggle in vain to bring French workers to Maoism. Many young revolutionaries quit their studies to work in factories, serving the wrong people. Worse, in the events of May, by urging workers to revolt for material gain, they wound up playing the rear guard to the anarchists.(29)

Conversely, young workers and students liked the anarchist agenda of the March 22 Movement, because it addressed real concerns that they had. Its message to, "destroy this society because it is alienating and unjust," rang true with the youth of France. Youth from objectively oppressor groups will sometimes forgo the material incentives to engage in oppression and instead work for justice for subjective rewards. And this is likely only among a small minority. Without adopting the perspective of the truly oppressed (the international proletariat) this revolutionary energy has no anchor and thus no sustenance.

Cohn-Bendit on the Russian Revolution

The last sections of Obsolete Communism claim that the Russian Revolution was not led by the Bolsheviks, but was rather a spontaneous uprising hindered and eventually sold out by the Party. Any anarchist after 1917 has a responsibility to justify their failed path compared to the success of communism. He quotes no historian other than Trotsky, and asserts that Trotsky was a brilliant anarchist who only upheld the vanguard party because he had a religious allegiance to Lenin.(30)

Perhaps it is simple racism that accounts for Cohn-Bendit leaving the Chinese practice of socialism completely out of his analysis. But this omission is symptomatic of another trend: failing to recognize historical advances of socialism and instead looking backwards, to a time when socialism was more "pure" (that is, of course, when it had no victories or setbacks under its belt). The March 22 Movement wanted to reverse history, and do it right this time. But material conditions had changed as imperialism bourgeoisified the French working class, as the police state was mastered, as capitalism developed responses to socialist challenges.(31)

Could the revolt have become a revolution?

The 1968 movement was an extraordinary showing of the strength of the youth who are willing to make material sacrifices for subjective gains. The French bourgeois democracy came closer to being toppled than in any other imperialist country, and there may indeed have been a moment in which the government could have been forced to fall.

But in the absence of a vanguard, there would have been a vacuum. The few anarchist Action Committees, which enjoyed only small support and had no coordination of efforts, were not capable of confronting this vacuum, and they were ambivalent about confronting it at all.

Anarchism has no way of building or consolidating the people's power to combat the reactionaries' power. Cohn-Bendit whines about the CGT trying to mislead the workers during the crisis, but surely greater threats to their power would have occurred after the fall of the government. There is no rhetorical substitute for the correct political line and coordinated military effort.


1. Ronald Fraser, ed. 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. Pantheon Books: New York, 1988. p. 203

2. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, trans. from German Arnold Pomerans, Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968 p. 24.

3. Ibid., p. 29.

4. Insults about Cohn-Bendit's German citizenship were common, the PCF's newspaper deriding him as a "German anarchist." This led to the chant among students of "We are all German Jews." Richard Johnson, The French Communist Party versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, preface.

5. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 35.

6. A key rallying point for the students was the distinction between the slogan of the French Communist Party (PCF): "Peace in Vietnam," and their own: "The FNL will win." Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, New York: Hill and Wang, 1970, p. 56.

7. Cohn-Bendit, op.cit., p. 32.

8. The reason for this error is hard to pinpoint. Cohn-Bendit criticizes the PCF for pointing to "a handful" of bosses rather than class interests as they existed, but does not show how his own finger-pointing at foreigners is dissimilar.

9. Cohn-Bendit, p. 44.

10. Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution 1968, New York: Putnam, 1968, p. 49.

11. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 91.

12. Ibid., p. 91.

13. Ibid., p. 107.

14. Ibid., p. 47.

15. The UJC-ml was for the most part not participating in the university events as of this point, focusing on their work in factories and skeptical of the strategy of provocation that posed great risks to revolutionaries. Alain Touraine, Le communisme utopique: le mouvement de mai 1968, Paris: Conditions du Seuil, 1968, p. 122.

16. The Latin phrase he uses is from French Catholic lingo of the day which reflects on his mystical adoration of leaderlessness.

17. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 61.

18. Ibid, p. 103.

19. Ibid, p. 69.

20. Ibid, p. 70.

21. Ibid, p. 70.

22. Ibid, p. 71.

23. Ibid, p. 71.

24. Bernard E. Brown, Protest in Paris: Anatomy of a Revolt, Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1974, pp. 20-21.

26. Touraine, op. cit., p. 186.

25. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 76.

27. Ibid., p. 112.

28. Ibid., p. 112. Amerikan Yippie Jerry Rubin said the same thing: "We are not going to organize the people around our ability to suffer. We are going to organize the people around our ability to have fun and to survive." We Are Everywhere, Harper & Row, N.Y: 1971. p. 232.

29. Brown, op. cit., pp. 78-80.

30. The Makhno movement and the Krondstat rebellion, major issues that many anarchist theorists bring up regularly, are discussed elsewhere in this theory journal. Cohn-Bendit's arguments are by no means original, so turn to page XXX for MIM's response.

31. The bourgeois apologist famous for recognizing the anarchism of the students as being a step backward in historical development, Raymond Aron, is wrong on many scores but has stumbled across this correct analysis. He uses the point in a fundamentally different way, however, to suggest that the anarchists would either become bourgeois with age or become "Stalinist totalitarians" like their elders in the PCF. MIM would challenge anarchists to instead take note of historical developments after revisionism took power in the Soviet Union, which is to say, work for Maoism. Raymond Aron, trans. from French Gordon Clough, The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.