Ideas

May '68: A Tale of Four Cities

The student-led protests of May 1968 on the streets of Paris dominated the news of the day and have since entered the realm of popular mythology. Contributor David Zane Mairowitz was there. He was, as he puts it, an observer-participant, documenting the myth as it was being made -- not only in Paris, but in other epicentres of protest: San Francisco, New York, London. The exhilaration and the revolutionary fervour also had a darker, violent side, he shows. In the end, May 1968 was as much about social change as it was a publicity stunt for itself.
Young women parade on May 1, 1968 during the Labour Day demonstration organized by CGT and the Communist Party in Paris. (JACQUES MARIE/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

The student-led protests of May 1968 on the streets of Paris dominated the news of the day and have since entered the realm of popular mythology. Contributor David Zane Mairowitz was there. He was, as he puts it, an observer-participant, documenting the myth as it was being made — not only in Paris, but in other epicentres of protest: San Francisco, New York, and London. The exhilaration and the revolutionary fervour also had a darker, violent side, he shows. In the end, May 1968 was as much about social change as it was a publicity stunt for itself.

**This episode originally aired May 3, 2018.

David Zane Mairowitz is a dramatist and documentary radio maker living in France 1:29

In 1968, David Zane Mairowitz left the U.S, to live in London. It was the Swinging Sixties: the Beatles White Album, George Best, Twiggy. But across the Channel, the streets of Paris were getting torn up by student-led protests. Back in his native U.S., upheaval had become the new normal. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April 1968. There were race riots the summer before all over the country. In San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury area had become the unofficial capital of a growing counter-culture. Drugs were everywhere, as were protests — protests calling for revolution across the board. In politics. In society. In consciousness itself.

David tried to document the movements as they were happening, collecting posters and notices and eventually publishing them in a book entitled BAMN (By Any Means Necessary).

David Mairowitz in 1968, bottom right. (David Mairowitz)

David tells Paul Kennedy that much of the protests, especially in the U.S., were ultimately less about social and political restructuring than they were about just making life less boring. One group he associated with the Haight Ashbury scene, The Diggers, used theatre as a way not only to make their political and social critiques known, but as a way of life.

It's through the lens of theatre that David sees May '68: as a phenomenon of people, you could call them characters, acting out their beliefs about the way they saw the world they'd like to live in.

Right, front cover of BAMN - Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera 1965-70. Left, the BAMN manifesto. (David Mairowitz)

But David also tells Paul that the "revolution" was being turned into a commodity even as it was happening, with books and movies being written and produced by and about those at the forefront of it — perhaps foreshadowing the trajectory from yippie to yuppy.

The exhilaration and exuberance animating the anarchic spirit of the times wasn't coherent or sustained enough to lead to lasting political and social change. And if so much of the energy of May '68 was really about sensation, then the slippery slope towards the privileging of intense feeling over social justice was all but inevitable. And that slide had a darker side — soon producing violent groups like the Weather Underground Organization in the U.S, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany.

The direction is getting more blurred as violence creeps into the psychedelic world of '68. So blurred, in fact, that violence itself has no substantial political purpose any longer. Violence itself has become a fantasy.- David Zane Mairowitz on the factionalism of May '68

David cautions against nostalgia. And his documentary has a decidedly ironic tone. But it's not a dismissive or sneering irony. David believes that the spirit of May '68 still has much to teach us. Attitudes and elements may have been immature, fractious, and at times even irresponsible. But it did embody an intense and widespread optimism that life could and must get better for everyone. An optimism, he laments, that is in far less supply today.

David Zane Mairowitz is a dramatist and documentary radio maker living in France. His previous contribution to IDEAS was The God and Guns Show

**This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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