When students in Paris erupted into concerted protest in May 1968, there were many who thought that the next stage of global revolution — a long arc, beginning in 1789 — had finally come about.

The May uprisings had started over housing issues at Paris VIII University in Nanterre, the Monash/Macquarie/Flinders of the system, stuffed with students who couldn’t make it into the best schools, and those who could but disdain the trappings of ancient power in central Paris. What began as a protest over prudish dorm arrangements, quickly became a protest against rigid systems of power, that had been left unmodified for decades, even as social life changed beneath them. That, in turn, became something else entirely: a protest against the regime of the mundane, of everyday life, the routine of work, school, commodified leisure.

France’s heritage of surrealism served it well: as Godard’s film Two or Three Things I Know About Her made visible, the entry of advertising, packaging, TV, and pop culture into a settled European state was surrealism in practice. Much of the “68-ards” slogans — sous les paves, la plage (“under the paving stones, the beach”) — demand the impossible, and came from surrealism, or from its successor, situationism, an art/politics movement focused on the rise of the “spectacle”.

Bringing a heft to all of this was perhaps the most influential and yet now little known figure of all: Henri Lefebvre, whose multi-volume work The Politics of Everyday Life was essentially a Marxist anthropology of current alienation. It was Lefebvre above all others, who convinced young radicals that simply seizing power wouldn’t be enough; a whole order of being had to be shattered.

They came closer to doing it than many realise. But even as the student uprising was joined by workers on “wildcat” strikes, far leftist groups, farmers and others, the French Communist Party (PCF) held back from endorsement or a general strike. It was the crucial historical moment — an allegedly radical party preferring the order of the real, to the possibilities of the political imagination. It was the PCF’s anti-Bolshevik moment, and it marked the summit — and beginning of decline — of the “new left” as a radical and mass political movement.

[Sorting truth from treachery in the legacy of Paris, 1968]

But Lefebvre’s work, and the uprising which sprang in part from it, were all a response to one big question: what had happened to the revolutionary working class? This was, after all, the lynchpin of Marx’s theory — the capital-less working class, represented humanity. In overthrowing capitalism they were acting on their own behalf, and for all of us. They would have to act, as capitalism made life unlivable. They failed to do so, and it is a striking thing of the Marxist movement that most of its revolutions were won by peasant armies, nationalist multiparty groups, or self-selecting guerrilla groups, rather than the class Marx had in mind. This has been taken to discredit the theory.

It doesn’t at all, of course. Marx may not have foreseen Keynesianism, but he did state that capitalism’s crises could be managed by the state — which was, after all, capitalist. The perpetual alienation of workers through higher wages and consumer goods? Well, Marx never put a time limit on capitalism, even though he, human after all, believed several times that the revolution was coming before he’d had time to write about why it was. And as ever larger sections of the population have been drawn into it (ex-Maoist China, ex-village-socialism India, Africa on the way) its arc in time and space has grown and may have a while to run.

What about the failure of the working class to come to a socialist class-consciousness, even without immiseration? A lot of work has gone into that too. Marx argued that the production of “ideology” — modes of thought that make a given social system look natural and inevitable — had a power to generate “false consciousness” about class interests. Lunacharsky, Gramsci, Lefebvre and others added further theorisation of such. That’s one explanation. Another is that Western working classes benefit from cheap goods from the global East and South to such a degree that they are, de facto, shareholders in global capital, and recognise their interests, explicitly or not.

That question is particularly important, as heavy industry and manufacturing disappear from the West, and automation races ahead across the world. Capitalism only works at its most efficient (in its own terms) when the production and exchange of physical commodities produced by human labour is at its centre. A society in which this is outsourced, or automated will start to see a transformation in its underlying value-form — the now-permanent low-growth of the West and Japan, the need for the state to become the principal producer of demand — that puts it on the path to an accumulation crisis. That offers the possibility of post-capitalism, or of destructive war, whose principal use is to “reset” physical scarcity so that accumulation can recommence.

That would suggest that Marxism, far from being an outdated approach, is the theory of the future, and that only the extraordinary fact of the short Bolshevik century — 1917-1968 — and its failure, misled many to believe it concluded.

But even if Marx got the internal processes of capitalism more right than wrong, did he get right the way capitalism fits into wider social processes? In short, no. The longer answer will have to wait for another time.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey