The Boulevard St. Michel, Monday evening, May 13, was a scene of exaltation as students filed into the gates and reclaimed the Sorbonne. In the hot night, thousands of people penetrated into the courtyard, where groups gathered under the severe regard of Victor Hugo and Louis Pasteur, two comrades in stone, now sporting red and black flags respectively. Here, where French culture passed from adult to youth, where students were filtered from exam to job, a generation installed itself with the aim of reversing the normal process of "l'entrée dans la vie," and attacked the society they were supposed to enter.
Every amphitheater was packed on this first night of the occupation. In one hall, the debate lagged briefly and an older professor, drawn and concerned, resolved to introduce a note of dissension: to put politics in the university, he said, was to introduce agitation and disorder, and both were incompatible with serious studies. He could not make himself heard. His words might have rung true before the Events but now he stepped down unsuccessfully, yielding to the majority which ruled by the energy of revolt, and let the debate return to its already habitual bedlam.
In another lecture hall, the stage was full and the audience noisy when a familiar voice boomed into the microphone. "Go ahead say it, what you just said, say it again in front of everyone." It was Cohn-Bendit again, on the first night of the Free Sorbonne. A young man came forward: "I speak as a militant communist; don't forget that 100 years ago, it was the Communist Party which fought for the liberation of the working class. It was the party which led the Spanish Civil War. And it was the party which fought in the Resistance and suffered the deaths..."
Cohn-Bendit took the microphone again and began apologetically:
"A minute ago, I was a little excited. I was wrong. This comrade who has just spoken is an excellent comrade. He worked against me at Nanterre, called me all kinds of names, but I don't care. It is our political direction which counts, or more importantly, our lack of it for the moment. It is necessary to question all political leadership, particularly that of the Communist Party, in view of the efficacy of spontaneous action in the streets and the continuation of the movement."
What was unique about the Sorbonne, to which Cohn-Bendit had referred, what made it the model of the entire revolt, was its refusal of all leadership. People normally fear revolutions, on any scale, not necessarily because they fear disorder (for, in fact, disorder is often exhilarating), but because they fear the severity of a new order which succeeds the abandon. On the reverse side of the wild card that is revolution lurks the constant threat of dictatorship. In the French movement, which was directed specifically against an authoritarian regime, the participants were not about to allow another system to install itself where the previous one had cruelly reigned.
Herein was the beauty of the Sorbonne of these times: it fought not only against the regime, but against the revolution, or at least the revolutionary tradition. It was the libertarian valve of the movement, open wide, imposing no order and very little opinion, refusing no one the floor, denying nothing but constraint. Programs on permanent protest, on the critical university, on the maintenance of the Sorbonne as an arena of direct democracy, were conceived as barriers against the eventuality of any and all discipline. Here was the revolution within the revolution, a radically new model proposed to the twentieth century, a revolution without dictatorship, ruled only by imagination.
All the while, jazz blared from the steps of the chapel in the outer courtyard; Dave Brubeck and Mao Tse Tung were there together in a spectacle of liberation. Many residents of the Latin Quarter, who a few nights back had thrown water onto the barricades to wash away the gas and gave the young revolutionaries refuge in their homes, came for the first time to the Sorbonne. A reception desk received visitors who wanted to know where they could go, how they could help out. Many who came for an evening stayed a week. On the third floor was a dormitory for permanent residents. Elsewhere, a nursery for young children was opened, and a food service with volunteer sweepers to deal with the dialectic of dirt.
The walls of the Sorbonne, for so long deaf and dumb to the problems of the emerging consumer society, now rebounded with Marx and Lenin, Freud and Che Guevara, offering some lessons of their own: IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION. ANSWER EXAMS WITH QUESTIONS. WE WANT A WORLD, NEW AND ORIGINAL. WE REFUSE A WORLD WHERE THE ASSURANCE OF NOT DYING FROM HUNGER IS EXCHANGED FOR THE RISK OF DYING FROM BOREDOM.
Boredom and repetition were cardinal sins. In one lecture hall a standing committee led a discussion on "permanent protest"; in another, someone read a dissertation on the role of the orgy in the Roman Empire and Puritanism in China. The question was to define what cultures and what societies most fully permitted the total liberation of the human being, and in the process no institution went unchallenged. Why should knowledge privilege a teacher over a student or parentage give a father the right to discipline his son? How to replace boss with worker and government with the people?
Out of the sentiment if not always out of the sense of the impassioned discussion, two tendencies become clear: for some, the now liberated university should combat society; for others, a new university should be created within the existing society. The former envisioned a university that would serve as a political base, widening the possibilities for spontaneous mobilization of a movement which would carry the revolution toward a new kind of socialism. The latter envisioned a more fruitful union of the university and society, a return to order and reforms through negotiation and legislation.
These two tendencies corresponded to the two faces of the larger movement: the Communist Party versus the enragés, the CGT versus the student-worker alliance. And as always, tension between these two faces, reformist and revolutionary, weighed heavily on the proceedings. Like a tug of war, the one in its maximalism fought against the other's compromises.
It was in such an atmosphere that the issue of exams was constantly debated. Here was the strongest point of reformist resistance to extremist pressure. The reformists appealed to the 511,000 students in France who stood to lose an entire year's credit if exams were discarded in the wake of the movement. The revolutionaries, for their part, could not have cared less. From the very beginning, the March 22 Movement had advocated a general boycott. Their analysis was simple: the exam is the key to the entire system, the goal of all scholarly work. To crack the exams, they reasoned, was to crack that system. They also recognized that if exams were scheduled, the movement would dissipate as everyone returned home with their books and manuals.
Discussions were long and heated before an accord was reached. Finally it was decided that the question of exams should be submitted to a commission of students and professors who would construct a completely new system to be administered in the fall. It was a victory for the revolutionaries, and one of them appropriately proclaimed it in a clear space on a Sorbonne wall: WE WILL HAVE GOOD MASTERS WHEN EACH WILL BE HIS OWN.
The schism continued. Reformists' meetings were calm, at appointed hours, mostly in the upper stories, sometimes bordering on the concrete and practical. It was here that the creative anarchy of the street disciplined itself to the task of reforming the university. Meanwhile, revolutionaries held meetings around the clock, debating the union of workers and students, the degradation of the Communist Party, and ways of maintaining the popular energy generated by a week of street action.
This last concern was obsessive. The movement, by its very success, had played into the hands of the government and removed itself from the public eye. In fighting with the police, the students and their allies had tapped an undauntable source of energy; but, in the Sorbonne, the only force they had to contend with was their own incapacity, the only victims of their combativeness were themselves. How now to prevent a paradoxical hardening of the revolutionary arteries?