The French revolution

In May '68, Paul Johnson, the then editor of the New Statesman, extolled Parisian student power in a

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of student power. As in 1848, each outbreak in each European capital contains the seeds of another elsewhere, as students gain courage from the success and audacity of their foreign brethren, and learn from their mistakes. With each outbreak, the students raise their objectives and widen their horizons. Anyone who is fascinated by political processes and public philosophies should make every effort to go to Paris now. For what is happening there is of great importance not only to France but to the world. To be there is a political education, to watch the birth-pangs of a new approach to the organisation of human societies. This is such a rare event in history that we are fortunate to be alive to witness it.

The French movement is seen to be far more sophisticated than its equivalent elsewhere; more deeply grounded in philosophical principles and more adult in its grasp of the strategy and tactics of political action. In the overflowing lecture halls and corridors of the Faculty of Letters, every conceivable topic is examined: forms of revolutionary action, birth control, the nature of the state, Vietnam, the role of parents, the nature of the university. Workers come there to argue and listen, and so do old men and housewives and foreigners and Deputies and writers and journalists. The debating groups spill out into nearby streets and crowd the vast Odéon Theatre. De Gaulle has called it a "dog's breakfast". Perhaps it is, in a sense: France has brought up its Gaullist vomit and now feels better.

But the disparate debate is underpinned by a powerful thread of logic, which has transformed the French movement from a student revolt into a political event. The university is the matrix of society, the institution which produces its elites, assumptions and objectives; therefore student reforms are organically linked to the transformation of the adult world. Student agitation is meaningless unless it can join forces with the workers, the fall-guys in any consumer society.

A wild theory?

The students cannot produce all the answers, but they are asking questions which have never been posed before in the context of a political offensive, and with a stridency which makes it impossible for their elders to brush them aside. It is not enough, they say, to debate the questions and formulate the answers, then allow them slowly to percolate: debate and formulation are inseparable from action in the street. A wild theory? Yes: but it works! The students fought all night on the barricades on 10 May; the next day the government, the arrogant and authoritarian Gaullist state, capitulated.

At this point the student movement passed into the mainstream of politics, indeed history. Beneath the thin veneer of Gaullist "stability and prosperity", practically every large group in France has a grievance, long cherished through years of futile negotiations. Any state must make enemies; the art is to avoid a conflict with all of them simultaneously.

Any state must sometimes use force and sometimes appeasement. The art is to avoid doing both together, and thus losing respect and popularity. The Gaullist government has contrived to make every mistake in the book. And in its distress, the regime is looking for succour to what, in political terms, is its natural enemy: the Communist Party bureaucracy.

In terms of the new realities, however, the CP and the Gaullists are natural allies. Both have a good deal to lose by radical change. Both look to Moscow, in their different ways: to maintain the continuity of Gaullist foreign policy is almost as important to Moscow as to de Gaulle himself. Both are entombed mummies, which a breath of ideological fresh air could reduce to powder.

Thus we have the extraordinary antics of the CP and the CGT [General Confederation of Labour] over the past fortnight. First they dismissed the students as unimportant. Then when bodies of young workers joined them on the barricades, they jumped on the bandwagon in order to put on the brakes, but found themselves careering down the slope. Their men stopped the workers from joining hands with the students in taking over factories. But they could not halt the takeovers themselves.

At every stage their orders and appeals have been for calmness, discipline, etc. As such they have been praised for their moderation and sense of responsibility by the Figaro, organ of the French bourgeoisie, and given eager publicity by the Gaullist TV/radio network. What a fate for any CP which hopes for a long-term future! And, worst of all, they are confirming, in theory and in practice, everything that the students have always said about them. The Fifth Republic will never be the same again; nor, I think, will Moscow communism. It now has powerful enemies on the left, in the heart of Europe. Once again, the French have given birth to a revolutionary new spirit, which will ultimately enrich the lives of all of us. I would like to think, without much hope, that Britain had a contribution to make.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times