May ’68 and the Crisis of Marxism (1978)

Megan Craig, Near-Sighted, 2015, oil on panel.

Ten years. And Marxism, which appeared to be the critical weapon of the May movement in France, with all of its libertarian, Maoist, Guevarist, Trotskyist, or Althusserian-theoretical variants – anti-imperialist on all accounts – has entered the docket of the accused, a singular displacement of the political and ideological conjuncture. In the same moment when capitalist societies are experiencing their deepest crisis since the 1930s, and even acknowledging the fact; when the assorted experts of the Trilateral Commission swear that Western democracies have become “ungovernable” due to a latent crisis of the classical instruments of hegemony, might Marxism itself be caught up in this great collapse?1 Could we see the return of a liberal or neoliberal culture, which would play society against the state and develop an ambiguous anti-statism to better open up the field for multinational corporations, eager to overcome the barriers of nation-states and French Jacobinism?

Is this an open crisis of Marxism, and an end to all of our myths? Surely. Decreed by some who are always ready to point out another opium of the people and the source of all our gulags, internalized by others during an unprecedented political crisis disclosed by the historic failure of the French left, and most recently declared by Marxists in a provocative and self-critical manner (I have Althusser in mind, but also Rossana Rossanda, Lucio Colletti, or Perry Anderson), this crisis of revolutionary ideas and practices seems to affect Marxist theory itself. Do “Leninism” and even “Marxism” condemn us to a kind of critical and practical impotence as concerns the transformation of Western societies?

Not to speak for others. If it is really true, as a neoliberalism with a left-populist bent proclaims, that the Stalinism of “actually existing socialism” is the realization of Leninism, which is nothing more than Marx’s “totalitarianism,” programmed by the Jacobin culture of the Enlightenment, the same victim, no doubt, of the totalitarian seeds in Platonism and Western metaphysics. Phew!

And it is on this precise point – in this terroristic vertigo of a metaphysics of origins which curiously recalls anti-Jacobin, post-revolutionary French ideology of the 19th century, from Benjamin Constant to Guizot, all those critiques of “democracy against liberty” because totalitarian – that a doubt arises.2 What if this crisis of Marxism was in the first instance only a crisis of a certain neo-Stalinist or reformist Marxism, which never ultimately dies and is always reborn in all the bureaucratic perversions of political practices? And what if, as I think is the case, this dramatic crisis of the modes of analysis and political practices and strategies of the workers’ movement, so evident in the present contradictions of a faltering Eurocommunism, in the “identity crisis” of the major European communist parties, in the historic failure of the left, causes the lacunas, the limits of Marx himself appear?

As for the state, ideology, the structures and workings of political practices, there is the analysis born in 1968: molecular forms of power (in the family, the school, the couple, prisons), the vast field of norms and social control, that cannot be flattened into state power, or even less reduced to classical forms of exploitation only. And what if – this is my final point – this critical disillusion, this anti-dogmatism of crisis, far from rendering us sober in whichever fashionable pessimism, was our chance? So that a single notion could be drawn from politics, which is not about the state or domination, but a theory of hegemony, as Gramsci intuited?

We see here a mature crisis, a lesson in historical realism, a liberation. Assuredly, the end of all our philosophical and above all politico-statist aims, ever dogmatic and too closed off from Marxist theory to be able to encompass, unify, and master the ensemble of the historical process running from capitalism to socialism, boiled down to a mere voluntarist confrontation of classes. In short, the relations of Marxist theory to socialism and revolution were vitiated, perverted, and Marxist theory was not able to escape clean and unscathed. One more reason to tackle this serious question, posed in ‘68 and left unresolved: “What is to be Done,” yes, with Marxism, even beyond Marxism, and why not tend against Marxism for an in-depth analysis of our society? And thus to get out of all the impasses the workers’ movement has bequeathed us: to think the revolution on the model of a frontal seizure of power (the 1917 type) or to “occupy the state” through a parliamentary road from above, between party leaderships, according to the legacy of Bernstein and Kautsky that the Union of Left could not – or did not want – to overcome.

We can understand why the year 1968 triggered a crisis and interrogation of Marxism, of a Marxism incapable of “changing the world, from France to Prague, after the fact, for political and ideological reasons. The crisis of Stalinism and later that of “de-Stalinization,” tragically stifled in Prague, and the failure of a democratic road to socialism in Chile, Portugal, and France, sanctioned something at work in the May movement: in its theories and politics, in its strategic blockage.

In truth, in May ’68 Marxism was not a kind of body of theory, constituted at an epistemological level. Even if the return to sources (Marx after the break, Lenin…), to rigor, to the science of history against the ideologization of Marxism and soft humanisms had indeed been the novelty of Althusser’s thinking in the years from 1965-68. This was a period when we never stopped Reading3 and re-reading Capital, and believed that we could escape Stalinism and its liberal-humanist, “right-wing” critique solely by virtue of “Theory” and its re-appropriation of the great Marxist texts. Rest assured, this theoretical dimension was not lacking during May. But it was undeniably less decisive, in relation to both the student and the workers’ movement.

In fact, the Marxism of May, filled with all types of Third Worldist or insurrectional fascinations, operated otherwise and elsewhere. A large-scale, often contradictory, project of critique, whose overall [global] dimension was not always articulated – a collective praxis of rupture. A critique of knowledge, the bourgeois university, powers, hierarchies, relationships between leaders-led, political representation and state repression; repeated attempts to connect Marx and Freud, desire and revolution, phantasm of a collective imaginary and speech that had become historically active: this was the Marxism of May. On the horizon, the great anti-imperialist struggles of the Vietnamese people, the Cuban people (“Che”), and the mass movements of the Cultural Revolution in China and in Europe – student protests. 

With ten years having passed, this Marxism that is too reliant on Third Worldist models, repeating the insurrectional myths of the strike or dual power, claiming the Gaullist state to be “vacant” and open to a frontal assault, has proved to be somewhat out of touch with the force of the anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian mass movement, which raised much more complex problems. The confusion of a crisis of hegemony (in the Gramscian sense of a crisis of authority, institutions, political relations, the “integral” state) for a revolutionary crisis (in the classical Leninist sense) only led to a strategic impasse. Whatever might have been said, power was not “for the taking.” What’s more, all the evidence since gathered has shown that despite some tenuous moments, the forces of order never entirely lost control of the situation, and the bourgeoisie was well-positioned to defend itself by all available means. The Gaullist counter-offensive at the end of May, the thinly-veiled call for civil war, speaks volumes about the possibility of a Versailles-like massacre.

But how then to explain and acknowledge the student movement’s place in this bifurcated Marxism, extremely libertarian but strategically orthodox, entirely enmeshed in an instrumental [frontal] understanding of power and the state?

While it called for other political practices, another theory of politics goes beyond the sole horizon – more than problematic – of the seizure of state power.

This identification of the revolutionary crisis (in the Leninist sense) with a crisis of hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) provides clarity on the probable origins in France of the later crisis of Marxism. The discovery of the global character of capitalist oppression was expressed in new forms of historical consciousness that have continued to have effects in society for the past ten years, even if the development of the crisis since 1975 has generated more nebulous, and doubtless more desperate, forms. Henceforth, a social system like the capitalist system no longer depends on the social-economic exploitation privileged by Marx, but indeed on the ensemble of institutions, ideological apparatuses, and inter-individual relations that maintain the existence of this system and reproduce it in a contradictory fashion – and cannot be resolved through the Marxist problematic of the “superstructure,” “consciousness” (which either follows or does not follow), or even ideology. Better, any economistic, quantitative approach to the relations of production and exploitation has been put into question by the critique, from a perspective of workers’ self-management, of hierarchical forms of power, social control, and the internal operation of factories themselves.

Does not such a crisis of hegemony lead to a critique of politics as it is structured in the “bourgeois public sphere?” But as Jürgen Habermas has shown, the constitution of public space depends precisely on a separation between the “public sphere” (reduced, in the 17th century, to the state) and the field of the private, in its double determination: the private domain of civil society (economic exchange and production and the family, that restricted domain of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois interiority, extended to the working class in the latter half of the 19th century.4

In fact, this reduction of the political to the state is characteristic of the capitalist mode of production as such, and its ideology. It is in this sense we can interpret Engels’s affirmation: “The state presents itself to us as the first ideological power over man.”5

The appearance of this separated state, which the young Marx criticized as the “state of separation” is inscribed in a whole series of new oppositions: the social and the political, the social and the economic, the social and the private. Certainly, the development of Keynesian state practices (the welfare state) placed this separation of the economic and political into question – which was never total, even in the strictly liberal framework. But far from destroying the fetishism of the state, Keynesianism has seemed to reinforce the identification of politics with the state. And doubtless, one should follow the women’s liberation movement, feminism – that true legacy of May – in order to understand that this autonomization of the political, its reduction to the state, to parties, has historically functioned, and still functions, towards the exclusion of women, their relegation to the “private.” By discovering that the “personal is political,” the feminist movement engages, in practice, in a critique of a “narrow” concept of politics, reducible solely to the state and prisoner to the bourgeois ideology of politics and its “representative-parliamentary” field.

If, as Althusser argues in his interview with Il Manifesto, Marx was “paralyzed by the bourgeois representation of the state, politics, etc., to the point of repeating it in a solely negative form (critique of its juridical character), if the analysis of the state continues to be more negative than positive (primacy of the critique of the state-class domination), if this region of the political remains a “blind spot,” a “forbidden zone,” is this not because of another blind spot, which Althusser does not really elucidate?6 That is, there is an intrinsic weakness of Marxist analysis, a practical as well as theoretical lag, concerning the liberation of women. Can we actually perform a critique of politics without undertaking a feminist critique of politics? I highly doubt it…The links that connect the state to the genealogy of familialism, the still-less explored relationships between the establishment of the representative regime and the normalization of intra-familial relations (including, and above all, in the working class) leaves us to think how the state functions “in the family,” but without forgetting about this other fact: every form of class domination is accompanied by male “domination.”7

This is all to say that the “crisis of Marxism,” in its classical or institutionalization versions, is tied to the existence of these two major problems raised in May. A theoretical problem: how to think the relations between state power and powers, between economic exploitation and others forms of sexual subjugation, bureaucratic hierarchies…A practical problem: the representative dimension of politics in no way covers the politicization of the social and its effects: reaffirmation of a political subjectivity, irreducible to canonical statements about a bourgeois individuality in crisis or to some Marxist analyses, even those that develop a “theory of personality,” which does not “dream” and proves to be unconcerned with sexual difference.8 But why should such a theory dream, since it is “developed,” content, and reaffirms the guarantees of a scientific humanism repainted according to the tastes of the day, while badly hiding its own “morality,” as Nietzsche would say…

In confronting these two problems, the far-left (at least its orthodox, Leninist version), such as the institutional Marxism of the PCF, has found itself to be non-hegemonic. For it has not worked out, in a communist form, the “theory-ideology” of state monopoly capitalism and its humanist complement, as a hindrance on the in-depth analysis of French civil society.

This is why the Marxism of May ’68 was not only a “praxis of rupture” engaging all fronts of struggle. It was, in the first instance, an exploded, fractured Marxism, paralyzed by that enormous political contradiction of May; the impossible encounter between classes and potentially allied social strata, the vertical and sectarian compartmentalization of struggles which could have and should have been unified: the students, the university youth, and the working class, the workers.

From this perspective, the specific “responsibility” of political parties in the strategic blockage of May cannot be eluded. Such a blockage aligns with the failure of a union of the left incapable of establishing a real dialectic between “contract” (unity of parties) and “combat” (mass unity from below) – and thus fundamentally incapable of drawing the lessons of May.

The student explosion – high school, intellectual (in the broad sense) students – was immediately the first major surprise of May. Yet, in the light of the mass anti-capitalist movement that traversed nearly all the “hegemonic apparatuses” (university, school family, media, hospitals, asylums), a movement that contained everything, from utopia and its “workers’ self-management” aspirations to new forms of democracy and politics (practices of assembly and speaking, the rejection of delegates), the communist party immediately holed up in its “fortress.” It acknowledged the “legitimate” aspirations (and the others?) of the students, denounced repression, even while minimizing the movement’s beginnings to the activity of “several groupuscules,” rendering them guilty through the straitjacket of a truncated Leninism, wielded against “petty-bourgeois ultra-leftism” for a good cause: the party forbade any relationship between culture and politics, and thus any kind of hegemony – a movement that everywhere escaped it and unfortunately came to it from “outside”…

Several consequences followed that would have a singular impact on the PCF’s whole democratic strategy. An inability, in pressing conditions, to confront the need for new forms of democracy from below; and an inability to discern and analyze new fronts of struggle. Two shortcomings that, in the absence of any sort of self-criticism, would result in the same errors, the same fear in the face of the new and the struggles emerging from ’68: from workers’ self-management struggles like Lip, to feminist and environmental struggles…

There remain reasons for this position. If power is not first in the streets, it’s because power is primarily in the ballot boxes, as though one could proceed without the other. But since May ’68, the priority of a popular government with communist participation, the reduction of the movement to this sole aim, has been affirmed. Of course, the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left, its status as a third force on the center-left and presidential strategy suffering (the meeting at Charlety Stadium, the Pierre Mendès France government), wanted to hear nothing of it9. But in attaching this political approach to a movement in which just as many intellectual-middle class elements as workers have sought to look past the parliamentary framework, is not the PCF condemning itself to lose all real hegemony in the struggle and within the movement?

For did not the choice of such terrain, precisely that of the “management” of the Common Program, exclude from the start any kind of actual fusion between new forms of democracy and the parliamentary outcome? It thus tended to uphold and consolidate the division of labor between trade unions (the Grenelle Agreements) and political parties, in seeking to reach a programmatic agreement from above, between party leaderships. A division that would be reproduced starting in 1972, and would prove to halt the building of a “popular union” that would be neither reformist nor sectarian, capable of making the Common Program a dynamic coalition, in which the masses could have their say, including criticism.

Beyond the crisis of strategies in both ’68 and ’78, there are specific theoretical reasons for the PCF’s position, which concern the absence of the cultural hegemony of Marxism in the French workers’ movement. Grafted onto deep-seated popular traditions, Marxism is trapped, as it were, between two temptations and two traditions: the workerist tradition stemming from the actual practice of the working class (cf. going back to the 19th century, Sorelism and Guesdism) and reinforced by the “Bolshevik ideological formation”10 spread by the Communist International; and the Jacobin tradition that comes to the movement from above and provides it with a juridical dimension (making programs, defending their “letter,” proclaiming rights), when it is not statist (leadership from above, primacy of centralism…). These are traditions that – to say in passing – hardly offer critical antidotes to the de-Stalinization of the PCF, and have always presented obstacles to its authentic de-Stalinization – the leadership often makes appeals to workerism to hide internal political contradictions and resolve conflicts in an administrative manner…

This lack of cultural hegemony, the “French misery,” targeted by Althusser, always renders the relationships between intellectuals and the working class problematic. Outside the great periods of national unity (the Popular Front in 1936 and the Resistance), the alliance breaks down at very moment when it needs to develop: in May ’68, but also in ’78, due to the PCF’s “misérabiliste” electoral campaign.

There is doubtless a deeper reason: the famous “theory-ideology” of state monopoly capitalism, the veritable “cement” of the Communist Party, as Althusser has shown in his articles for Le Monde. The approach to contemporary capitalism in terms of “state monopoly capitalism” has certainly made possible a more precise analysis of the new role of monopolies in economic accumulation, and the particular effects on the transformation of the state. But it remains caught in an “instrumentalist” vision of the state, in an analysis of power that amounts to a small caste of the most privileged (the “rich”), and is narrowly framed in an economistic-quantitative approach to problems (even if the global, cultural, moral, and ideological dimensions of the crisis are highlighted) and forms of workers’ self-management [autogestion] on the order of the day, such a “theory-ideology” paralyzes any concrete approach to new social contradictions. What’s more, it conceals a glaring absence: the state.11

Under these conditions, when faced with a less than satisfying alternative – either an orthodox Leninism defended by some, or a mechanistic-economistic Marxism, ready to liquidate the concepts of Marx and Lenin (the infamous dictatorship of the proletariat) without debate and without advancing alternative theoretical concepts – could Marxism really have conquered the cultural hegemony in France over the past ten years? At the same time when all references to living socialism (I am not even talking about a model…) is collapsing and in which the training of youth, often marginalized, doomed to unemployment in the grips of an unprecedented crisis of the educational apparatus could no longer take place through the “classical” channels (parties, or youth organization).

This is why, and without downplaying the contributions of several Marxist works during this period, it nonetheless seems that the analysis of certain new problems – “micro-powers,” the “subject,” the family, the division between the sexes – stumbled onto a terrain not broached in the history of French Marxism, nor by Marx himself. One thinks of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972), for example, or Michel Foucault’s studies (Discipline and Punish, 1975).

Truth be told, in displacing the analysis of power, and more precisely strategies of powers, from the field of the law towards that of the norm, towards forms of social control and disciplines which produce reality, Foucault’s work is not situated from the first outside of Marxist analysis, finally stripped of its economistic demons and capable of acknowledging Marx’s limits. Gilles Deleuze, in articulating Foucault’s “theoretical revolution,” no doubt privileged the force of his break with Marxism and the traditional left through the abandonment of its classical postulates: property (class power), localization (state power), subordination (state/infrastructure), mode of action (ideology or repression), and legality.12

But the breaks are all the more stronger because they are aimed at a “reductive” kind of Marxist analysis, unable to think the “revolution in the West” and the different ramifications of power, spread throughout the casemates of civil society, in “hegemonic apparatuses.” In short, can one not say that “the state relies on the institutional integration of power relationships?”13

If the current task of Marxism consists in returning to its critical and revolutionary bearing, and if, as I believe, this critical and revolutionary thinking passes through a critique of politics, several conclusions should be drawn. Namely: this critical thinking cannot be a statist thinking, nor a thinking of the “party,” but indeed a theory of hegemony. With this clarification: far from being reducible to ideology (dominant or not), on the contrary the concept of hegemony presupposes the elaboration of a new theory of ideology (which Gramsci charts through the floating terms of common sense, the national-popular, organic ideologies). This is in order to think the hidden face of right: the normative (which Gramsci researches through language, laws, Taylorist practices of industrialization, sexual morality. All the more reason to acknowledge that in our society, power relations do not only encompass class relations, but go beyond them, rework them, even if this analysis cannot overlook the question of relations of exploitation and class power.

And yet, how does one not see that this question has an immediately practical importance? Has not the crisis of Stalinism lead to the crisis of de-Stalinization, and to the normalization of the Prague Spring? Thus deepening an older “crisis of Marxism,” from which we have not yet exited…for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the stifling of a democratic renewal associated with the rebirth of freedoms and the creation of new (councilist) forms of democracy has rendered this “state” socialism more intolerable than ever, throughout an entire historical period – a bureaucratic, oppressive state socialism foreign to the ideas of socialism held by Marx and Lenin. The discovery of the anti-democratic and anti-Leninist dimensions of the Soviet state can only to the question raised by Rossana Rossanda at the Venice conference organized by Il Manifesto: “Why have all the revolutions thus far come to grief on the key problem of the state and freedom?”

It is clear that this question calls for a Marxist approach to Stalinism, and an interrogation of the capacity of Marxism to set about this exhaustive analysis. Between a “theory of the state” given in the guise of a theory-practice of the non-state, a state that organizes its own historical disappearance through an alternative, non-bourgeois form of the state (the state of “soviets”) and the existence of a theory-practice of the parliamentary state, there seems to be a void [vide]. In this sense, Marxist analysis has reproduced the internal contradiction of classical political philosophy: between democracy understood in the liberal sense (freedoms, primarily individual freedoms, representative forms), following Locke; and democracy understood as the direct self-government of the people, following Rousseau. And yet, it indeed appears that one or the other would be strategically impracticable for a “politics of socialism” adequate to our societies.

But are we then resigned to an ongoing seismographic oscillation between a movement without a program (May ’68) and a program without a movement (May ’78)?

Both the classical, frontal strategy of insurrection and a parliamentary strategy directed from above have failed in France. Perhaps because they have only operated in view of the state, without approaching the question of the state starting from a critique of political practices and a non-statist understanding of hegemony?14

It is necessary, then, to modify our relationship to Marxism today, to begin from its lacunas, its points of fragility – to openly confront its forbidden zones, its blind spots, its “conservative” aspects (cf. the question of feminism…), so that this real crisis becomes an emancipatory one, producing other analyses, other political practices.

– Translated by Patrick King

This text was originally published as “Mai 68 et la crise du marxisme,” Politique Aujourd’hui No. 5-6 (May-June 1978): 139-147.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”


1 Michael J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Jojo Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: NYU Press, 1975). In his report on Western Europe, analyzing the “collapse of traditional institutions” (church, school, cultural organizations, even the army), those “stronghold[s] of the moral fabric of Western societies,” Crozier recommends a return to more “flexible,” less openly “coercive,” let’s say “liberal” forms of social control. An ideological strategy of imperialism that connects with Carter’s “moralism: on “human rights,” and has certain overlaps with the “new philosophers” in France.
2 It is possible to draw several useful comparisons between a text by Guizot, “Democracy in France,” (1849), and that of Giscard d’Estaing, French Democracy; as well as between Benjamin Constant’s liberal critique Constant of “totalitarian” democracy and the discourse that has flourished these last few years. See Paul Bénichou, Le Temps des prophètes: doctrines de l’âge romantique (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).
3 Capitalized in original.
4 On the constitution of the bourgeois political space: Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Boston: MIT Press, 1989).
5 Translator’s Note: This statement is found in Engels’s 1886 work, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.
6 See Louis Althusser, “Marxism as Finite Theory,” in the present dossier.
7 On this point, and on strategies of familial “normalization,” cf. Jacques Donzelot, La police des familles (Paris; Minuit, 1977), and the recent issue of Recherches, no. 28 (September 1977), “Disciplines à domicile: L’édification de la famille.”
8 TN: The reference is to Lucien Sève, Man in Marxist Theory and the Psychology of Personality, trans. John McGreal (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978). Buci-Glucksmann’s critique here seems directed at the “scientific” character of Sève endeavor, and his attempt to found a scientific, non-speculative Marxist approach to psychology. For a recent reading of this work in relation to certain of Althusser’s concepts, see Ted Stolze, “Althusser and the Problem of Historical Individuality,” Crisis & Critique 2.2 (November 2015): 195-214.
9 TN: The Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left was an electoral coalition of left, non-communist groups, formed in the mid-60s amongst Gaullist governmental hegemony. During the events of May, it tried to translate the unrest into a new political bloc, calling for a snap election and the formation of a provisional government led by Pierre Mendès France. One of the central legacies of the FDSL was that it was the vehicle for Francois Mitterrand’s rise as the most prominent socialist figure in France, and its dissolution was a factor in the constitution of the Socialist Party in 1969.
10 On this Bolshevik ideological formation and its workerist dimension, I refer to Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, Second Period: 1923-1930, trans. Brian Pearce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 500ff.
11 I will not dwell on this question, already debated in the collection La crise de l’Etat, ed. Nicos Poulantzas and Suzanne de Brunhoff (Paris: PUF, 1976), and Poulantzas’s other works.
12 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Séan Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), especially chapter 2, “A New Cartographer.”
13 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), 96.
14 For an initial approach to this critique, see the collective work, Critique des pratiques politiques, ed. Pierre Birnbaum and Jean-Marie Vincent (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1978). In the space of this article, I have not dealt with the analysis of Eurocommunism as a symptom and condensation of the crisis of Marxism, which I develop in my text in the work cited above: Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “Eurocommunisme, transition et pratiques politiques,” Critique des pratiques politiques, 103-120.

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and professor emerita at University of Paris-VIII. She is the author of Gramsci and the State (1975) and Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity (1984).