Colombian social historian Jesús Antonio Rodríguez offers here the argument that the French leftist student uprising of May 1968 was central to neo-Marxist thought and manifestations occurring in Cuba, Bolivia, Vietnam, the United States, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. To test this hypothesis, we can examine the results of the May 1968 revolt in France itself, then test for forces and actors that radiated outward.
Student unrest against the Fifth Republic at the University of Nanterre spilled over to the Sorbonne, then generalized for several days throughout the Latin Quarter. President Charles De Gaulle and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou fought back with restrained force, and the revolt ended with two citizens killed, dozens injured, and millions of francs in property damage. A quick election was called, and De Gaulle won resoundingly, with the leftist parties losing half of their parliamentary seats. Ten months later, in April 1969, however, De Gaulle was unseated in a referendum that included many issues. (This synopsis is based on Wayne C. Thompson, “France,” in Western Europe, World Today series, 1995, p. 168.)
Rodriguez posits these questions: What caused the uprising? Was it isolated? Why is it widely discussed today? Were the participants genuinely dedicated to Marxist revolution? And is the event historically powerful for its reality or for its mythology? His discussions are brief on each question, and all are based on secondary material easily available in standard references. The question of substance versus reality is so subjective that other authors do not discuss it.
The distinguished volume Latin American Radicalism: A Documentary Report on Left and Nationalist Movements, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz, José de Castro, and John Gerassi (1969), alludes only in passing to the Paris student uprising of 1968. The French Marxist Régis Debray has an essay in this volume; neither that essay nor his book Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America (1967) credits the French student uprising with inspiring events in Latin America or elsewhere. Ernesto “Che” Guevara counseled his troops in Bolivia, in April 1967, that Debray (called Danton by the revolutionaries) would be more useful outside Bolivia than participating in the conflict (The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara, ed. Mary-Alice Waters, 1994, p. 364).
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of many intellectuals who praised Fidel Castro publicly in the early 1960s and went on to support student rebellion in Latin America later in the decade. Yet Colombia’s “guerrilla priest,” Camilo Torres Restrepo, never mentions French influence in what he terms the marginal influence of Latin American students in the Marxist struggle (Horowitz et al., pp. 496-98). Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella makes no mention whatsoever of the May 1968 Paris uprising in his June 1969 “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla.”
Romanian social historians Michael Radu and Vladimir Tismaneanu devote their entire volume Latin American Revolutionaries: Groups, Goals, Methods (1990) to showing that Latin American neo-Marxism is a nonauthentic European import of the 1960s. One might therefore expect these two authors to credit the French radical students with inspiring their Latin American counterparts to revolutionary action. In early October 1968, thousands of Mexican students took advantage of the presence of the world press assembled to cover the Mexico City Olympic Games by staging huge riots and demonstrations. This student uprising was put down with much more violence than that used by the French security troops five months earlier. Yet the Radu and Tismaneanu volume makes little mention of the French model. Furthermore, T. R. Fehrenbach, in Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (1995), does not mention the Paris uprising, and attributes the Mexican student revolt to the influence of visiting Cuban revolutionaries (p. 637).
French radicalism had much to do with inspiring the generation of Latin American creoles who led the revolutions for independence against Spain from 1810 to 1830. This reviewer suspects that there was some connection, probably more intellectual than physical, between the Paris revolt of May 1968 and leftist uprisings in Latin America during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But Rodriguez’ book, Mayo del 68, makes no case at all beyond asserting its own title.