France is often seen as the centre of 1968 activism. Paris in May 1968 is said to be where things took off. Young French people had been radicalised by opposition to the colonial war fought by the French in Algeria (1954-62) and were then inspired by Third World struggles in Latin America and Africa and by the Vietnam War and Chinese Cultural Revolution. Many wanted to ‘bring the revolution home’ from the Third World to the first. They were also part of a global cultural movement against the nuclear family, religious conservatism and bourgeois social conventions.
A number of activist strands came together to make the French 1968. First, there were young Marxists, some of Jewish origin, who broke with the still ‘Stalinist’ French Communist Party in 1965-6 to become either Trotskyists who believed in revolution by a vanguard party or Maoists who believed that revolution must come from workers and peasants. Second, there were anarchists who wanted to subvert society in a much wider sense, culturally as well as politically. Third, there were young Christian activists who were struggling against and the conservatism of the Catholic and Protestant hierarchies on questions of politics and sex.
All these strands came together in the 22 March movement at the new University of Nanterre. In May 1968 they became an explosive cocktail in Paris and combined with a national general strike in factories and offices. But they also fragmented between Trotskyists and Maoists who wanted to rekindle the proletarian revolution they had glimpsed and those who espoused a wider cultural revolution, including women’s liberation and gay rights activism. The Maoists built bridges to a working class of North African immigrants which had not been active in May 1968 but who were now inspired by the 1970 Palestinian revolution. This made for another powerful revolutionary cocktail, until the Palestinian killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics drove a wedge between Maoist activists and North African revolutionaries.
The advent of autonomous workers’ and peasants’ movements with the Lip watch factory strike of 1973 and the struggle of sheep farmers on the Larzac plateau against the extension of a military base throughout the 1970s taught young Marxist activists that revolution was likely to be local and non-violent rather than Parisian and violent. The decline of Third World revolutions into dictatorship, civil war and genocide disillusioned those who had one wanted to bring the revolution back home. Meanwhile the struggle of dissidents, workers and Christians against post-1968 Communist repression in Czechoslovakia and Poland provided another model of revolution from the East that parted company with Marxism altogether.