May Day, the international workers' day, brings another anniversary from 1968, a momentous year that veered wildly between exhilaration and heartbreak, joy and tragedy.
The not-so-merry month in France brought the climax of a youth rebellion that came close to toppling the government of World War II hero Charles De Gaulle. The young folks' revolution also flared in Germany, the United States and Eastern Europe.
In an interview in the current New York Review of Books, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Dany Le Rouge, the German- born leader of the Paris unrest, recalled the revolutionary events of 50 years ago. The Catholic-backed French right opposed the youth rebellion, but, as Cohn-Bendit recalls, so did the hidebound French Communist party, as well as the Communist Trotskyist faction.
The old Marxists opposed the unrest because in went against their theory of total revolution, believing the youths' demands for sex and rock and roll wouldn't topple capitalism. As Cohn-Bendit points out, the young people's revolution ended up accomplishing far more social change than the Marxists had ever been able to deliver.
The French unions eventually joined a general strike, which led to economic concessions from the French government that gained support among conservatives.
That May's events were remembered as one of the high points of the youth counterculture. A regrettable sidebar was the Romantic enthrallment with communist leaders like the muderous Mao Tse-Tung and North Viewnam's Ho Chi Minh. An anarchist derided by the Communist left, Cohn-Bendit says he was always suspicious of the fatuous hero worship. The non-violent, flower-power flavor of the spring of 1968 later hardened into violent revolutionary fervor.
The rebellion inspired literature such as James Jones' novel "The Merry Month of May." One of the best novelists of World War II, known for "From Here to Eternity," turned his attention to the 1960s generation, with mixed results.
A longtime member of the European parliament from Germany in his adult years, Cohn-Bendit during his political career has continued to draw fire from the right and left. While supporting Green programs, he's backed military intervention in Bosnia and elsewhere.
When I was in college, I happened to read "Obsolete Communism and the New Left Alternative," the political call to arms written by Cohn-Bendit and his brother. I read it long after the events of 1968, when Cohn-Bendit had wandered off to a program of sexual liberation that later brought him accusations of pedophilia. I remember being enthralled by the book when reading it, but I now have little memory of its prescriptions for a new society.
The Paris Review, which began in the French capital and for years ran an office there, published on its web site some of the posters of the French uprising. The slogans show the French gift for pithy wit.