The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968

By Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn

Originally published by Panther Books 1968

Reprinted 1998 by Verso

Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68 -- the Situationist International's official statement on the 1968 revolution -- begins with the following quotation from Hegel's Reason in History.

Concerning original history. . . . The content of these histories is necessarily limited; their essential material is that which is living in the experience of the historian himself and in the current interests of men; that which is living and contemporary in their milieu. The author describes that in which he has participated, or at least that which he has lived; relatively short periods, figures of individual men [sic] and their deeds. . . . It is not sufficient to have been the contemporary of the events described, or to be well-informed about them. The author must belong to the class and social milieu of the actors he is describing; their opinions, way of thought and culture must be the same as his own. In order to really know phenomena and see them in their real context, one must be placed at the summit -- not seeing them from below, through the keyhole of morality or any other wisdom [emphasis added].

These formulations must be faulty, or, rather, they must have been overtaken and left behind by "reason in history," because Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68 is not at the level of Hegel's writings on history, despite the fact that it, like Reason in History, is a "first-hand, insider's account," written by a "participant" and an "eyewitness."

Or so it appears now in 1998, after reading the reprinted edition of Quattrocchi and Nairn's thrilling The Beginning of the End, which is certainly the best book on May 1968 that I have ever read. Though both Quattrocchi and Nairn were well-informed contemporaries of the events described, only Quattrocchi was an active participant or an "actor" in the Hegelian sense. Nairn was not an eyewitness to the events: he was living in London at the time. Quattrocchi wrote his half of the book as a series of dispatches to his friend, Nairn, whom he had met years before. But Quattrocchi was Italian, not French, and this would seem to present a problem, if not to one's ability to fully understand this very French revolution, then at least to the strict standards established by Hegel in Reason in History.

There is substantial irony in the fact that The Beginning of the End is a better book than Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68, and this irony was most definitely not lost on "Uncle Bob," who designed the cover for the new Verso edition of the book. The cover photograph, which is attributed to AKG London/Paul Almasy, captures a moment in the life of the occupied Sorbonne. In the background, there are slogans spraypainted on the walls of a university building; in the middleground and towards the right, a handful of short-haired students (they are all male) sit on the steps and read newspapers; in the foreground and towards the left, a young man with long hair stands and reads a copy of (wait for it) Internationale Situationniste.

It is a truly arresting picture, almost too good to be true. For a moment you think the photograph must have been altered, in the way the situationists routinely "detourned" photographs to get them to express their real, hidden meanings. But the photo isn't altered: it is reality that has been altered; this photo "simply" captures a moment in the existence of that altered reality. The photo clearly shows the "penetration" of situationist texts into the radical student milieu, and more: it unintentionally captures a juxtaposition very similar to the one caught in the photograph reproduced on page 31 of the Rebel Press/Autonomedia edition of Enrages and Situationists. The caption to the latter photograph reads: "The Enrage Rene Riesel (left), and 'media spokesman' Daniel Cohn-Bendit (right)." Echoing the sitting students with their newspapers (headlines refer to a "Danny the Red"), Cohn-Bendit has short hair, and wears a blazer and a button-down shirt. Echoing the standing, long-haired student with his copy if the I.S., Riesel has long hair, and wears sunglasses and leather jacket (looks like Velvet Underground-era John Cale). "The difference in style, to which Vienet here refers," the editor of the Rebel Press/Autonomedia volume says in a clumsy note to the caption, "is here obvious."

And so "Uncle Bob" and the folks at Verso are having a little fun here. The photograph of the Parisian student with a copy of I.S. in his hands probably was not part of the book's original 1968 design, but should have been. This bit of fun was enough for me to buy this slender book, even though it retails for $15. But the fun doesn't last for long. For some reason, the photograph -- though appropriate to the book's subject matter and content -- just doesn't fit as the book's cover. It keeps peeling off, leaving a space, some kind of split, which won't close up.

The split is the fact that The Beginning of the End is divided into a "poetic" section (Quattrocchi's "What Happened," written in the form of a lyrical prose poem) and an "analytical" section (Nairn's "Why It Happened," written in the form of a scholarly essay). Though the content of Quattrocchi & Nairn's book concerns the explicit, practical supersession of the split between Art (poetic renderings of raw experience) and Politics (analyses of the causes of uprisings), its form re-enacts or reproduces that very split. There is nothing "dialectical" about this irony, this contradiction between the book's content and form. It is the simple result of the desire to get a book -- any book -- about May 1968 into print as fast as possible.

The split in the book -- the difference between the photograph and its role as bookcover -- is also the fact that neither Angelo Quattrocchi nor Tom Nairn seem to know very much about the Situationist International, the group that dedicated itself to the dialectical suppression and realization of Art and Politics, and that was quite active in the May revolution. For example, when Quattrocchi takes stock of "the extremists" active in Nanterre in March 1968, his list includes "a handful of Maoists, trotskyists, anarchists, situationists; yes, and even Cohn-Bendit," when in fact no situationists were active in Nanterre during this period. (It was only after May 1968 that the Nanterre Enrages joined the SI.)

Nairn fares little better. In referring to the circumstances of the publication of On the Poverty of Student Life, Nairn writes that in 1966 "a Situationist group got itself elected to the students' union of Strasbourg, and proceeded to dissolve the union," when in fact there was no situationist "group" at the University of Strasbourg at the time. Elsewhere, Nairn mentions in passing "the Situationist theme of 'la societe du spectacle' (modern society seen as already mainly devoted to the production of 'scenes,' appearances rather than things)":

This concern [with "the whole subject-matter of communication and language"] extends from the spectacular manifestation of McLuhanism, on the one hand (a general theory of history as determined by modes of communication), and the Situationist theme of "la societe du spectacle" (modern society seen as already mainly devoted to the production of 'scenes,' appearances rather than things), to the abstruse theories of French structuralism, on the other.

As Nairn's tortured phrasing unintentionally makes clear, the apparently untranslateable "theme" of the society of the spectacle doesn't belong among such compromised and degraded company. Unlike both McLuhan and the structuralists, the situationists were active revolutionaries who weren't simply interested in the "subject-matter of communication and language." "The society of the spectacle" was for the SI a weapon of combat against modern society, not a way of acclimating oneself to this society or a way of interpreting history.

And so, it was for these reasons -- one can only suppose -- that Guy Debord referred to The Beginning of the End as "an unconsciously situationist text." (This "blurb" appears on the book's back cover, and is not included or referred to anywhere else in the 1998 edition.) Quattrocchi & Nairn's book doesn't know that it is in fact a situationist book; it thinks that it is something else (an anarchist book); it hasn't yet risen to the level of (self)-consciousness one calls "situationist" -- it is difficult to know exactly what Debord meant by this phrase, which someone has turned into a blurb on a book jacket.

But this much is clear: Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68 was intended to be a consciously situationist book about May 1968. What does this mean? It means that the book was written by Situationists. (It has come out recently that Vienet didn't write the book on his own, but that he co-wrote it with Raoul Vaneigem, Mustapha Khayati and Rene Riesel.) It means that the book is primarily about the role(s) played by the Enrages and Situationists, and only secondarily about the occupation movement itself. It means that the book contains precisely what The Beginning of the End and so many other books on May 1968 does not contain: namely, accurate and plentiful information about the Situationists and their role(s) in the movement.

Unlike Quattrocchi & Nairn's book, Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68 -- which was also assembled and published as quickly as possible (indeed, it was published a few months before The Beginning of the End came out) -- is not internally divided into "Poetry" and "Politics." But this does not mean that this consciously situationist book manages to suppress and realize the separation between Art and Politics. Art is simply dispensed with: Enrages and Situationists is simply one long scholarly essay, enriched by the inclusion of an appendix of primary-source documents. That is to say, "Poetry" is not one of the strategies employed by the writers of this putatively situationist book: "poetry" appears inside of it, but the book itself is not poetic.

At the level of political analysis, Nairn's "Why it happened" is able to hold its own when compared to Enrages and Situationists, especially because the latter is so quick to dismiss the importance of the Fifth Republic in the origin of the agitation in France. "The Gaullist regime in itself had no particular importance in the origin of the crisis," the situationists state; "Gaullism is nothing but a bourgeois regime working at the modernization of capitalism, in much the same fashion as Wilson's Labor Party is" in England. As Nairn points out, such a perspective is unable to answer the crucial question, "Why did the May revolution occur in Paris, rather than anywhere else -- rather than in Italy, for instance, where student revolt was more militant and on a larger scale?" To ask this question is also to ask, "Do the local circumstances of [the May revolution's] origin prevent one from considering it as a model for other times and places?" Something made de Gaulle's France -- rather than Colombo's Italy or Wilson's England -- "the most unlivable corner of the western world, when for so long it had been the most comfortable" (to quote Nairn again).

Nairn's answer to this riddle is that, "of all relevant and comparable nations, France was the one with the least 'control' of any kind from below."

[France, Nairn writes] was almost totally deprived of living democracy [...] Because the Fifth Republic was very much of a vacuum in this sense, clearly any resolute effort to grab some kind of 'participation' was more inherently explosive than elsewhere. After all, the vacuum was not mere absence or accident. It was the intended structure of the Fifth, without which the compensation for the void, the General [de Gaulle], would not have agreed to emerge from the clouds again and assume power [in 1958]. But this peculiar emptiness of the regime [...] was the logical counterpart of its success, on another level.

This is a far more insightful analysis than that of the situationists, who state that only "two specific features" of the French situation should be noted in passing: "the Gaullist accession to power by plots and a military putsch, which marks the regime with a certain contempt for legality, and de Gaulle's personal cultivation of archaic prestige." For Nairn, de Gaulle's accession to power is unique because of the "never-healed conflict between the political traditions of the revolution of 1789 and the predominantly anti-revolutionary reality of France."

It was France [Nairn writes] which produced the most perfect, the classical order of bourgeois political democracy, thanks to the revolutionary energy of the Jacobin leadership of 1791 to 1795. But she proved thereafter chronically incapable of making this order function properly.

This inability to ensure the political order with a relative stability, as Nairn points out elsewhere in his essay, has upset and marked the French State far more seriously than similar crises have affected England or the United States. "To the revolutionary and democratic tradition of 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871," Nairn writes, "one must oppose the hideous serie noire of Napoleon, the Restoration, Napoleon III, Boulanger, Petain, and de Gaulle." The contrast to England and the United States is quite pronounced. "While the British Constitution, that un-classical rag-bag of oddments, survived industrial revolution and innumerable wars," Nairn writes, "the French Constitutions which succeded one another after the great revolution habitually collapsed at the slightest crisis." To Nairn, the unique contradiction in French society is "a certain weakness of development [that] stemmed from the Revolution itself, which was essentially political in nature, not economic (like the English industrial revolution proceeding at the same time), and bought its political success by compromise with rural [economic] backwardness." Precisely because the Fifth Republic, in addition to everything else, "was also a model of enlightened, technocratic neo-capitalism -- not at all a sick man in the capitalist world," the fundamental contradictions in French society became so acute that an explosive, far-ranging and unprecedented crisis was inevitable. All that was necessary for the whole thing to burst into flames was the proper spark.

Everyone familiar with these discussions will know that the Situationist International -- unlike all the other revolutionary groups and "theorists" active in the 1950s and the early 1960s -- was so confident in the inevitability of political revolution in France that it based its entire programme and position in capitalist society on this certainty. But the uniqueness of the SI -- indeed, the very reason we (continue to) give a shit about this obscure group, 30 years after its "heyday" -- lay in the fact that it was committed to "losing" or realizing itself when the insurrection broke out. "We will only organize the detonation," the SI wrote in 1963; "the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever." These are anarchist positions, at least in the sense that Tom Nairn uses this word in his essay; and the remarkable thing about the situationists was that -- despite their explicit denunciation of anarchism -- they acted like anarchists and let the free explosion of May 1968 "escape" them. That is to say, the Enrages and Situationists were active in the occupation movement, but they refused to lead it or speak for it at any time. They acted in their own name, as the The Committee of the Enrages and the Situationist International, and -- when the proverbial dust settled -- they wrote, in their own name, about what they had done in their own name.

And yet The Beginning of the End is still a better book than Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, precisely because the former (Quattrocchi's prose poem, in particular) is strongest where the latter is weakest: on the events before the Sorbonne was occupied on 13 May 1968; that is to say, on the events that led up to the detonation. The situationists only devote two chapters -- a mere 26 pages out of a total of 110 -- to these salient events, while Quattrocchi devotes half of his prose poem to them. But it is, of course, not only the quantity but also the quality of what Quattrocchi has to say about the two weeks immediately prior to the free explosion that makes his writing on 1968 superior to that of the situationists.

I am not about to argue that Quattrocchi is a better writer or prose poet than the writers of Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement. This will not be a matter of style, or, rather, this will not primarily be a matter of style, of poetic expression. This will be a matter of content, of the quality and quantity of useful information contained in these two works about May 1968. This will not be a matter of the relative superiority of first-hand accounts to second-hand accounts. It will be a matter of the "details" that eyewitnesses and even participants choose to focus on in their writings.

To the situationists, the police were not a factor in the detonation, or, rather, they were part of it only insofar as they were a reaction to it.

[On 3 May 1998, the situationists write] the police and the gendarmerie mobile invaded the courtyard of the Sorbonne without meeting resistance. The students were encircled. The police then offered them free passage out of the courtyard. The students accepted and the first to leave were in fact allowed to pass. The operation took time and other students began to gather outside in the [Latin] quarter. The remaining two hundred demonstrators inside the Sorbonne, including all the organizers, were arrested. As the police vans carried them away, the Latin Quarter erupted. One of the two vans never reached its destination. Only three policeman guarded the second van. They were beaten up, and several dozen demonstrators escaped. It was the first time in many years that several thousand students in Paris had fought the police for so long and with such energy. Endless charges greeted with hails of paving stones, failed to clear the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the adjoining streets until several hours later. Some six hundred people were arrested [...] The whole of May 6th was marked by demonstrations which turned into riots early in the afternoon. The first barricades were thrown up at the Place Maubert and defended for three hours. At the same time, fights with the police were breaking out at the bottom of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, at the Place du Chatelet, and in Les Halles [...] Insofar as the rioters were able to strengthen the barricades, and thus their own capacity for counterattack, the police were forced to abandon direct charges for a position strategy which relied mainly on offensive grenades and tear gas [...] The battle was very rough [on the night of 10 May]. The CRS, the police, and the gendarmerie mobile succeeded in making the barricades untenable by an intense bombardment of incendiary, offensive and chloride gas grenades, before they would risk taking them by assault. The rioters responded with paving stones and Molotov cocktails [...] The police swept the quarter until noon, beating up and taking off anyone who looked suspicious.

The impression created by these remarks is strong: though numerous, the police are outnumbered; in general, the police seem weak; they restrict themselves to tear gas grenades, and don't beat anyone up, don't kill anyone; indeed, it seems like the police are beaten up more often than the demonstrators are! If there is violence here, it is the revolutionary "energy" of the demonstrators; if there is frenzy here, it is the frenzy of demonstrators spontaneously turning into rioters.

The impression created by Angelo Quattrocchi's account couldn't be any different:

Unwritten rules, the ones which can be unearthed in cryptograms of balance sheets and profit margins, silently and categorically state that rebellious workers must be faced by the army, and shot at. Agitating students are best dealt with by clubs and tear-gas. A threat is a threat, a nuisance is a nuisance. And the ruling society mustn't be caught in the act of murdering its own children. The consequent outcry would be more disrupting than the actual disturbance [...] And dawn [on the morning of 7 May] brings more fighting and the two water cannon trucks ready into position but vulnerable to the bravest paves which shatter the windscreen and make them retreat. It slowly gets quieter, exhaustion takes over, the flics [cops] are masters of a dark Latin Quarter, watching the corners, fearful of shadows, but ready to maim and hurt the isolated and beat the unaware and scare the 'civilians' who are just passing there [...] Two cafes are besieged [by the police] and filled with gas. Unmentionable acts of savagery are committed late at night on isolated people and small groups [...] The government doesn't know if it's better to open the Sorbonne and take away the flics or to continue the beating which is sharpening the conscience of those listing on their radios [...] The masters [of society] think the government and its police are stupid and dangerous. They have been instrumental in bringing about this revolution, this escalation.

Here the police are armed with water cannons and clubs; they are stupid, dangerous, vicious, indiscriminate in who they beat up, in control of the situation and yet totally out-of-control, unmentionably savage, and instrumental in bringing about the detonation.

Police brutality -- now this is an explanation that makes sense. "The local inhabitants [of Paris]," writes the anonymous author of Paris: May 1968 (Solidarity pamphlet, June 1968), "saw what happened [on the night of 10 May 1968], the viciousness of the CRS charges, the assaults on the wounded, the attacks on innocent bystanders, the unleashed fury of the state machine against those who had challenged."[1]

When the police beat up, arrest or kill your sons and daughters; when the police beat up or arrest you ("A man in a bow tie is hit [by the water cannon] and rolls over the pavement" -- Quattrocchi); when there appears in the sudden explosion "a taste of revenge for a struggling people who count their pennies" -- that is when the detonation occurs, when the revolution begins.

The detonation does not occur when "our ideas are in everyone's heads," as the situationists were fond of saying; the detonation occurs when the police's batons are on everyone's heads.

[1] See also the first chapter of May 1968: Under the Paving Stones, Repression (May 1968-March 1974).

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