“Leftism is not dead, but it is no longer the spokesperson for a generation in crisis”

Anarchists, Trotskyists and Maoists shaped the revolt of May 68, analyzes the academic Philippe Buton in History of leftism (Perrin). According to him, if ecology continues this heritage, decolonial ideology is at odds with it.

FIGAROVOX.- Lenin already spoke of leftism as “a childhood disease of communism”. When did “leftism” go back and how do you define it? What distinguishes him from the “left”?

Philippe BUTON.- When Lenin spoke of the “childhood disease of communism,” his disparaging expression meant to disqualify some of his competitors, those who were – according to him – in too much of a hurry and therefore ineffective. Subsequently, the term entered into common parlance to designate all the revolutionary forces which are located more to the left than the orthodox communist movement, that is to say linked to Moscow. What sets him apart from the left? The fact that he thinks that at some point he will have to give up legality and use violence to change society. Certainly, that was Lenin’s opinion. But, officially, the communist movement had given up this option to declare itself in favor of “the peaceful transition to socialism”.

In 1968, Dany Cohn Bendit published Leftism, a cure for the senile disease of communism . What role did leftism play in the May 68 movement?

It is political leftism, in other words the small extreme left groups that existed before 68, which framed the spontaneous revolt of the youth. These groups provided the movement with its language, its imagination and its perspectives. But all this was done on the basis of multiple misunderstandings. For, in the name of efficiency, even science, all these groups aimed to bring all these streams of libertarian research into the well-marked bed of a perfectly authoritarian Leninism. Even the Trotskyists then become the advocates of the pseudo anti-bureaucratic Chinese revolution; even many anarchists then succumb to the spell of the Marxist verb.

It is political leftism, in other words the small extreme left groups that existed before 68, which framed the spontaneous revolt of the youth.

Philippe Buton

Why does the generation of baby boomers, which nonetheless saw the opulence of the Glorious Thirty Years, turn to the ideals of revolt?

The baby boomer generation is incredibly innovative. In the first place, it inaugurates a category that did not exist: adolescence. This intermediate age between childhood and adulthood, this state conducive to all questions and all experiments, was only a reality for a thin layer belonging to the wealthy elites. Now, thanks to the lengthening of studies, it is the common lot of the whole generation. And, second aspect, of a generation which became numerous thanks to the baby boom of 1944. And this generation, vast and available, is the first to suffer neither from hunger, nor from cold, nor from fear of war. Especially in France where, thanks to General de Gaulle, French youth came out of the Algerian war and believed they had come out of the cold war. However, this dynamic youth lives in a corseted society, led by notable conservatives. Young people do not really know what they want, but they know that they do not want this bland future, these outdated traditions, these stiff attitudes and these imposed hierarchies.

You stress in your book, like other thinkers like Jean-Claude Michéa, that leftism has paradoxically resulted in the victory of liberalism: is this explained by individual trajectories (from Col Mao to Rotary? Club as Guy Hocquenghem wrote) or by a fundamental convergence?

Contrary to what Hocquenghem said, the leftists – in their mass – did not go from Col Mao to the Rotary Club; they did not “betray” their ideals. Sociological studies clearly show that they remained much more to the left and clearly more committed than those who did not share their revolutionary beliefs. On the other hand, they did sort it out, retaining their push for freedom and equality and brushing aside authoritarian and statist temptations. In other words, they helped the victory of liberalism, but of a liberalism oscillating between a libertarian liberalism and a left liberalism, the Rocardian thought being able to appear like an acceptable compromise.

On May 4, 1970 Mao declared “today in the world, the main tendency is the Revolution”. today, it is populism that is on the rise, and the right is increasingly appealing to young people. Is Leftism Dead?

Political leftism – the extreme left groups – is not dead but it no longer represents the most active force because it no longer plays the role of spokesperson for a generation in existential crisis. Today it is partly populism that fulfills this role of megaphone, but this time it is no longer a question of a generation or an age group.

Ecology can appear as the heir to what I call cultural leftism, this desire to change life and modernize society.

Philippe Buton

Has leftism not found a second youth in the ecological cause (which proposes a radical break) or in decolonial ideology as a substitute for the class struggle?

It is true that, partially, ecology can appear as the heir to what I call cultural leftism, this desire to change life and modernize society. Moreover, many environmentalists have made their debut in the extreme left movements. However, this did not happen naturally because all the leftist groups were initially very productivist and hostile to what appeared to them to be a petty-bourgeois derivative, diverting energies from the essential task: convincing the workers of the need to overthrow capitalism. In reality, as in the case of feminism, ecology stems from both cultural leftism and the critique of political leftism.

On the other hand, the links with decolonial ideology are less obvious. The drift, embodied by the UNEF, which tends to replace the class struggle with the struggle of the races, the a-historical guilt are only very marginally the result of cultural leftism. Cultural leftism is an aspiration, confused but real, for more freedom and more equality, all carried away by a wave of fraternity and joie de vivre. It doesn’t have much to do with the inverted hierarchy of decolonial ideology, permanent and anxiety-provoking mortification, victimization competition, systematic self-censorship, and abysmal ignorance of historical complexities.

HISTORY OF GAUCHISM The legacy of May 68, Philippe Buton, Perrin, 560p, 26th Perrin

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