No, 50 years later, I do not regret anything. I did not steal, kill, rape or lie. And I don't believe I ever betrayed, neither our ideas and dreams, nor my comrades. Not everyone my age can say the same. But before we get started, let's put some dots on the i's.
The sixty-eighters, those who were really active that year, were only a small part of the baby boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1950. In France, we were at most around ten thousand activists from revolutionary political groups, in Italy and Germany there were not many more, in the USA there were much more. In Brazil, Tunisia, Senegal, Mexico, Greece, Czechoslovakia, or Ireland, our fellows were a few hundred at the beginning of the movements. But everywhere, we saw the same phenomenon: hundreds of thousands of people joined the leftists once the movements were launched. The majority of these people were young people, high school and university students, with the presence of a large minority of "blousons noirs" ("black jackets", French equivalent of greasers and Teddy Boys)), "hooligans" and other scum. They were young workers, apprentices, children of the poor and commuters.
The leftists were mostly of a bourgeois and petty bourgeois social origin. No wonder: in 1968, in France, only 8% of students came from working class families. But these children of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois expressed a clear and radical refusal: they refused to become the "guard dogs of the capital", the wardens of the social prison, the supermarket watchmen of the consumer society of spectacle. 50 years later, we have to admit it: the majority of us have become what they refused to be: teachers, architects, lawyers, psychiatrists, civil servants, deputies and senators, TV stars, journalists, writers.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, who, in our eyes, was an "old man" (he was 46 years old at the time), shot us a poisoned arrow in April, publishing a poem in the Moravia journal, Nuovi Argomenti, which was the Italian equivalent of Sartre's Temps Modernes. Under the title "Il Pci ai giovani" [The Communist Party to the youth], he wrote roughly: "Behind your beards, I see the faces of your fathers; the only real proletarians in this affair are the policemen you face". How many of the bearded young men, who were then so indignant at this low attack on the movement, did not follow in their father's footsteps?
We were not proletarians. We wanted to become one, to melt into the fundamental masses which, alone, could bring about the world we dreamed of. When, at the end of January 1968, the immigrant workers of the Schwartz-Hautmont building site, who were building the future Jussieu Science Faculty on the site of the former Wine Hall, went on strike, demanding an increase of 50 cents in their wages, which ranged from 3.10 to 4.20 Francs, the Maoists and Trotskyists launched a solidarity fundraising campaign which raised 1.5 million Francs, more than the workers would have earned if they had not gone on strike. The communists of the university immediately denounced this provocation "that aims to divide the workers", even going so far as to claim that this money... came from the bosses. They also did everything they could to prevent the solidarity strike with the workers, started by 50 teachers, from spreading. The main argument of the solidary students was simple and clear: "You workers and us students, we have the same enemy: the capital, which wants to make us your bosses". Later, in May 1968, we went one day to Renault-Billancourt, the "working-class stronghold", to meet with the workers who occupied it. We carried a banner proclaiming: "The working class will take the flag of the revolution from the weak hands of the students. (Signed) Stalin". The Stalinists of what we called the PCGT went raging mad, and their musclemen erected an impenetrable wall of muscles and fat between the class and us.
But let us not go astray.
I therefore undertake to tell you the highlights of a year of the last century that shook the world without really changing it, as I lived it. A year in a society before computers, without phones, almost without TVs. A society where young people read books, listened to the radio and spoke to each other, at length. And listened to each other. My story will consist of ten chapters from October 1967 to October 1968.
21 October-20 December 1967: Long live the victorious people's war!
I had just turned 18 years old. I was still far from the legal age which, at the time, was 21 years old. I was interned in khagne at a high school in the southern suburbs of Paris. Hypokhâgne and khâgne were preparatory classes for the entrance exam at the École Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm Paris. I was "khâgneux" because I was Maoist and not Maoist because I was khâgneux. After the baccalaureate, which I obtained in 1966, I had chosen this path with my three friends in the final year - we were the four "leftist neo-Hegelians " who stood up to our Nietzschean philosophy teacher – basing on the sole political criterion.
The ENS in the rue d'Ulm, which had seen so many glories - such as Sartre and Nizan - was the cradle of the Union of Communist Youth (Marxist-Leninist) (UJC(ml), created in 1966 by militants of the Union of Communist Students breaking with the PCF and who followed the teaching of Louis Althusser. The French Communist Party, strictly aligned with Moscow, was stuck: officially opposed to De Gaulle since his takeover of 13 May, 1958, it was confined to verbal opposition, given that the Soviet big brother considered the General as an ally in the struggle against US imperialism, which had been transformed, under Khrushchev's leadership, into "peaceful coexistence". This collaboration with the hated power that had ravaged Vietnam since 1963, occupying the South and bombing the North, was denounced by Mao's China, which had broken away from the Moscow "revisionists" in 1964. Mao and his kind had therefore unleashed the struggle against the pro-Soviet in the party and the Chinese state, represented by Liu Shaqi and his "black line", by mobilising the masses. The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 among Chinese students, transformed into Red Guards waving the Little Red Book of Mao's quotes. Communist militants from the rue d'Ulm, the Sorbonne, and Nanterre had decided to follow their trail.
When we arrived at high school in September 1967, we already knew where we would go to be politically active. The Maoists were the only structured political group in this school, whose population was for us a "blank page" on which we could write our discourse (as Mao had said about the Chinese people). We ended up in Lou Hsin cell (a great Chinese writer who had been a companion of the Chinese CP) with half a dozen other high school students. Organised in the communist model, we had 3 structures: the cell, which gathered the militants, the circle, intended for training the sympathizers, and the Grass-root Vietnam Committee (Comité Vietnam de base, CVB), the Maoist equivalent of what the Peace Movement was for the PCF.
The Maoists had launched the CVBs at the time of the creation of the UJC(ml). In March 1968, there were 120 in the Paris region and 150 in the rest of France. The purpose of these committees was to provide popular support for the war waged by the Vietnamese people against US imperialism. They were in disarray and disagreement, both with the Vietnam National Committee, composed of public figures and infiltrated by the JCR, the Guevarist-Trotskyist group which would become the LCR then the NPA, and with the National Committee of Action, created and controlled by the PCF, via its Peace Movement.
For the Maoists, the Vietnam War demonstrated the validity of the Chinese positions, proving the Soviets and their followers, as well as the Guevarists and their followers, wrong. For us, the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia on 8 October, 1967, symbolised the failure of the "foco" theory, the revolutionary focus lit by a small group of footloose guerrillas totally cut off from the masses. This attempt to repeat the Cuban experience failed in Bolivia as everywhere else, from Congo to Argentina. The Vietnamese communists had chosen the other option: the protracted people's war, encircling the cities from the countryside, and relying mainly on their own forces, as their Chinese comrades had done with the Long March and the Republic of Yan'an. The Vietnamese victory over the French army in May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu gave the signal to the Algerian militants, who 6 months later launched their insurrection, known as "Toussaint rouge" ("Red All-Saints' Day"). Their war against the US Army and its South Vietnamese puppets was, in our eyes, a lesson for all the peoples of the world: we could victoriously face up to the most powerful Empire, provided that we rely on the people and that we help them to organise themselves for this fight.
The oldest of us had lived through the Algerian war as adults. They had lived in their flesh the outright betrayal of the Communist Party which, after having voted the special powers to Guy Mollet in March 1956 (before being silent in front of the Franco-Anglo-Israeli attack of Suez in October and supporting the Soviet tanks' crushing of the Budapest uprising in November), refused to organize the disobedience and / or desertion of young people called or recalled to go to the dirty colonial war. Result: out of the 1,8 million French soldiers sent to Algeria, only 886 deserted, while 5,000 members of the French Foreign Legion, mainly German, did so. The PCF slogan, "Peace in Vietnam", the axis of this "tearful, defeatist and demobilising propaganda" was only a remake of the sinister "Peace in Algeria" that had justified the worst compromises.
Here is how the political report presented at the first CVB congress in March 1968 described the situation created by the communist "pacifists": “From marches to processions, processions to petitions with signatures, calls to shed a few tears and some shamefully complaining pullovers attempting to paint the heroic and brave Vietnamese people as a martyred people, a "poor" people surviving the blows of the invincible US war machine only by the "miracle" of who knows what Asian stoicism and material aid from friendly countries; protracted protests against aggression with frightened bleating in favour of peace, of any kind of peace, peace at any price: American, divine or negotiated, provided that it is peace, in short: from bad to worse, the anti-imperialist struggle, the political support for the Vietnamese people, the vanguard of the peoples fighting for their liberation, sank into a swamp of confusion, falsification and demobilisation, where all those who, spontaneously, wanted to join forces in a truly anti-imperialist fight, for the real support to the oppressed peoples only found disgust and apathy”.
21 October, 1967 was a day of action against the US war in Vietnam decided on by the anti-war movements in the USA; French movements had a duty to participate. Each in their own way: the CVN by a meeting of leading figures, the National Action Committee by a République-Bastille protest march. Under a grey sky, we met this Saturday afternoon at the foot of the Statue de la République, communists, Maoists, Christians and others. Would we really be marching behind the banners asking for "Peace in Vietnam"? There was no question of that. At one point, the order passed down the Maoist ranks: we retreated to the Temple metro station. No sooner said than done. Arriving at the Monoprix of the Rue du Temple, we looked back: after our retreat, we had left the place of République empty as a day without bread, the "revisos" looked at each other speechless and took a look at their own numbers, the masses had abandoned them. I do not know how many times more numerous we were. In 5 months, since their protest march on 17 June, their troops had melted like revisionist snow under a revolutionary sun. We then left in a rush in protest, abandoning the bleaters to their good for nothing march to the Bastille, with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Sign reads: “Peace and Independence in Vietnam”
This victory stimulated us to prepare for the next major event: the celebration of the 7th anniversary of the creation of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, born in the maquis in 1960. In the CVB of our high school, we had created a choir. There was a Vietnamese girl, with whom we translated and adapted the songs of the Vietnamese resistance. And on 20 December, on the stage of a full to the brim Mutualité palace, all dressed in black and white, we sang these songs: "The enemy is targeting our country/To destroy it, let's all be united!/Together, let's go to victory/Together, let's liberate South Vietnam! »
This 20th of December, a Wednesday, marked the beginning of the school holidays. I had postponed my departure to return to my family the next day, because of the meeting. It earned me a family court hearing in the living room. One of my uncles summed up the philosophy of the tribe: "The workers, the workers, what will it bring you to support them? You know, they’re ungrateful". All this left me unmoved. I had definitively chosen my family: it was the people of the rice fields, who had taken over from that of the djebels, the Algerian mountains.
To be continued
The girls of our dreams