When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Sources

The Specter Of May 1968, From Hamlet To Marx To May 2018

The violent protests that struck Paris last week weren't the start of a new, 1968-style uprising. But people are angry and disillusioned. And that's a problem.

May 1 protests in Paris
May 1 protests in Paris
Roger-Pol Droit

-Analysis-

PARIS — "A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Communism." So argued Marx and Engels, in 1848, in the opening of their Communist Manifesto. The line certainly had its hour of glory. And yet, lest we forget, it was also terribly exaggerated.

By declaring Europe obsessed with the imminent danger of a social and political cataclysm, by describing the continent as being on the defensive, by proclaiming that "all the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter," this propaganda was about making people believe that the Communist movement was considerable, when it was actually incredibly weak.

It would be a similar exaggeration to write today: "A specter is haunting France, the specter of May 68." In reality, a few extremists are throwing stones at the police, and multiple sources of discontent are accumulating. But it hasn't produced a united movement. There is nothing there to trigger the slightest apocalypse. Just because this year marks the 50th anniversary of "May 68" — and Karl Marx's 200th birthday (he was born on May 5) — doesn't mean a revolution is coming.

Marx and Engle's Communist Manifesto — Source: Wikimedia Commons

What we are seeing is a reappearance of old fantasies and phantasms — just like in Hamlet. When there is "something rotten" somewhere — which is the case almost all of the time — then we see a ghost return, most often embodying some betrayed virtue. It calls for help, announces that everything is out of line, claims that the disorder must stop. Thus did Hamlet's murdered father return as a ghost to meet his son on the ramparts of Elsinore and demand revenge (act I, scenes 4 and 5).

Wishful thinking

In 1993, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Jacques Derrida returned to this famous scene in his book Specters of Marx. Against the discourse of triumphant globalization, the philosopher wanted to remind readers that Marx, Communism and revolution would continue to haunt the world; that no matter how dead we thought they were, they would never stop living inside the system, corroding it from within.

First of all, you really have to believe in ghosts to swallow that kind of story.

This was just what people nostalgic still for Marxism and the revolutionary past wanted to hear. The old Shakespearean ghost and the theorist behind the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat ended up walking hand in hand, in the eyes of a few intellectuals. At least for a while. This made us forget several points, which it is useful to recall today, at a time when some are dreaming of bringing these specters back.

First of all, you really have to believe in ghosts to swallow that kind of story. And not everybody does. Far from it. Hamlet believes he sees his father dead and talks to him. But the queen sees nothing at all. "Do you see nothing there?" asks the son, hallucinating. "Nothing at all," replies the Queen Mother (act III, scene 4).

Protest in Paris in May 1968 — Photo: Keystone/ZUMA

Let us transpose: Today we see the specter of May 68 — regardless of whether we're rejoiced or frightened by it — only if we believe in it. Not perceiving it at all is possible, normal even. On the other hand, the hallucinations, being subjective and delimited, are also disparate. To each his phantom-fantasm: The black blocks that went on a rampage in Paris and the trade unionists aren't seeing the same specter of 1968, and the same goes for the nurses and the zadists, the students and the railway workers.

Tragedy and farce

Last but not least, these specter wear out. They erode with time and end up being nothing more than caricatures. Marx observes at the beginning of his The 18th Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte that, according to Hegel, "All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice." But we must add the following explanation: "The first time as tragedy, the second as farce." After the 1871 Paris Commune, the psychodrama of May 68. And the degradation continues: 50 years after the "farce" of 1968, with the weak sketches we're seeing being played this season.

That is why there will be no May 2018.

The only persistent thread in this continuous decomposition is a desire for nothingness, a death drive. In the fantasies of revolution, destroying the old world was necessary. But it was in order to build a new, better and finally just one. Now, though, all that remains is the will to block, break and shatter. Not on the basis of objective data, but driven by the sole, pure and compelling desire to destroy everything.

May 68 was already going in this direction with its explicit project of destruction of the university, of knowledge and of the elites. But there was also a real component of celebration, of free invention and joy that has quite withered among the nihilist commandos of today. That is why there will be no May 2018. Ghosts don't exist, except in funfairs and bad movies.

And yet, there's no reason to be reassured. Because the angers and the frustrations are real, manyfold and diverse. And they are feeding the various specters of populism ... that haunt Europe.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Europe's Winter Energy Crisis Has Already Begun

in the face of Russia's stranglehold over supplies, the European Commission has proposed support packages and price caps. But across Europe, fears about the cost of living are spreading – and with it, doubts about support for Ukraine.

Protesters on Thursday in the German state of Thuringia carried Russian flags and signs: 'First our country! Life must be affordable.'

Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

In her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, issued an urgent appeal for solidarity between EU member states in tackling the energy crisis, and towards Ukraine. Von der Leyen need only look out her window to see that tensions are growing in capital cities across Europe due to the sharp rise in energy prices.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the Czech Republic, people are already taking to the streets, while opposition politicians elsewhere are looking to score points — and some countries' support for Ukraine may start to buckle.

With winter approaching, Europe is facing a true test of both its mettle, and imagination.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ