This is an introduction to an in-depth narrative recollection on one of the most significant episodes of the 20th Century, May 1968 in Paris, from one of its participants, famed psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto. The full essay can be found here. This is the first time this essay has been published in English. -Lucas Ballestín

I lived through the May 1968 events in Paris at the age of nineteen as a first year Psychology student at the Sorbonne.

In a few years, when everyone who lived that era will be dead, there will be no experience, only history – the monumental cemetery of life. I thought I’d better hurry and describe my experience before history erases it.

Someone said that May 1968 is an overrated event, because it never really had a major following. According to this commentator, Woodstock, for example, was a far more important event: in the summer of 1969 it attracted over 400,000 youngsters who shared four memorable days of fun and enjoyment in New York State. A Woodstock, however, could repeat itself even today, and there have been smaller scale versions of Woodstock since that historical event. May 1968, on the other hand, can never be repeated.

I think that the strong interest in the events of May 1968, even for those who have never believed in any Socialist Revolutions, lies precisely in its uniqueness. In the fact that it can have no reprises, that it has the glaring mark of an Event, with a capital E. What happened that year was aunicum, and this gives it a very special aura: some events are historical simply because they are unique, even if they are remembered because of their failures. Certain historical failures often seduce us more than successes that changed the course of the world.

I want to give a witness account of something to which we can never return. Paraphrasing Putin, to want to repeat something similar to 1968 you would need to be brainless, but you would need to be heartless not to be nostalgic of it[1]. Here I intend to use my brain to talk about the heart.

1. We Rebel When Everything Is Going Fine 

In those months I was plunged in a state of crazy elation. Not because I was twenty, I would actually go along with Paul Nizan, who said “I was twenty, I won’t let anyone say those are the best years of your life!” I suffered for some very private reasons, but I did my best to live up to my dreams. One terrible thing about dreams is that they often come true, and hence fade away. For example, my dream was studying in Paris and following the seminars of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. And it came true. Despite a certain youthful naivety, I had figured out that those eggheads, practically all of whom lived in the same neighborhood, would have a remarkable impact on world culture. I felt I was in the center of the world, even though I didn’t feel at the center of my own world. Everything seemed to be going right, even though the price to pay – separation from those I loved in Italy, poverty – was high. This state of dreamy megalomania was ultimately common to many youngsters who participated in the 1968 events.

The feeling was that  everything was finally moving. Che Guevara had been killed in Bolivia in October 1967, true, but the Tet Offensive by the Vietcong (January 1968) had become living proof that America’s adventure in Vietnam was about to fail. For some time already, the anti-Vietnam war protests had been bringing together young westerners from the big cities who identified with this formidable Resistance of a tiny country against the colossal superpower. The Cultural Revolution in China was seducing many intellectuals: it was read as a sort of Dadaist rejection of Authority, starting with that of the Communist Party. They pretended not to notice the obsessively totalitarian side of that Revolution: Mao’s humiliating and fanatical cult of personality, the persecution of intellectuals simply for being intellectuals, the repression of pleasure and sexuality. And the Prague Spring of 1968, apparently the opposite of the Chinese Revolution, was seen as proof that even in the dulling Soviet system things could come alive and lead to change. The artistic and literary avant-gardes, the thinkers who would come to be known as post-modern, were coming out of their niches and becoming an influential metropolitan pole of attraction. There was a general attraction to everything “poor”: poor theatre (Grotowski, Barba), Italian poor art (Pascali, Merz, Kounellis, etc.), and even a “poor mathematics” (René Thom). Then there was minimalism, the avatar of poverty. The anarchist American group Living Theatre had enthused the “alternative” youngsters of the time in Italy. In a single year I saw their version of Brecht’s Antigone four times: no stage design, no costumes, no props, only moving bodies, speaking and screaming in an empty space.

We felt the elation of a world that was changing in precisely the direction we’d been hoping. We felt as if anything could happen. Even the most terrible thing conceivable: all-out nuclear war.

Those countries that experienced a fervent 1968 – West Germany, France, Italy, Japan – were going through an economic boom. We were a bit like China today; and apparently young people in China today are going through a kind of fierce enthusiasm very similar to ours in that period. In Italy we enjoyed the “economic miracle”; Gaullist France was experiencing the “The Glorious Thirty,” the long economic boom between 1945 and 1975; Germany was already the economic engine of Europe. In May 1968 the walls of Paris were full of posters against “the Gaullist regime of misery and unemployment,” whilst in fact in France at the time the unemployment rate was 2.6% – a percentage all economists would agree to be physiological. France practically had full employment, whilst in more recent decades the jobless have constantly been several million, always over 10%, but no one has considered raising the barricades. Our radical protest, total and unconditioned, was not the offspring of any crisis, of poverty or of a dark future looming over us: on the contrary, it was a repercussion of the euphoric prosperity – at once economic, cultural and political – of part of Europe. Even those who opposed the 1968 movement cannot help recognizing that  it was a beautiful time.

Those were the years – in both France and Italy – when university for the masses was introduced: the sons and daughters of classes that had always seen higher education as a privilege from which they were excluded had finally gained access to the austere lecture rooms. Of course the student leaders of the time didn’t come from the  parvenus of university education, but from families for which high schooling was common currency. A sort of osmosis was therefore created between those at the top and those at the bottom of the class: between those who already had an assured future and dreamt of a different one and those who, having gained access to illustrious places essentially alien to them, resentfully rejected their sacredness.

Continue reading here.

Sergio Benvenuto is a researcher in psychology and philosophy at the National Research Council (CNR) in Rome, Italy, and a psychoanalyst, president of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis. 


[1] Putin’s words: “You would need to be heartless not to regret the disintegration of the communism. You’d need to be brainless to want to restore it”